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Lawmakers Agree On $47 Million Boost For Child Welfare

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Florida Capitol Complex (Source: dms.myflorida.com)

Florida Capitol Complex (Source: dms.myflorida.com)

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TALLAHASSEE (CBSMiami/NSF) – House and Senate negotiators said Tuesday they had agreed to spend about $47 million in new money on Florida’s child-welfare system, which has been the focus of legislative scrutiny after a series of children’s deaths from abuse and neglect last year.

That’s less than children’s advocates had sought but more, perhaps, than many expected.

“I’m thrilled,” said Ted Granger, president of the United Way of Florida. “Neither the House nor Senate had that much money in it to begin with.”

The child-welfare proposals for the 2014-15 fiscal year were quickly approved by House and Senate negotiators Tuesday.

Major items include roughly $13.1 million for 191 new child-protective investigators at the Department of Children and Families and $8.1 million for six county sheriffs’ offices that provide such investigative services.

Additional money is slated to go for substance-abuse treatment for at-risk families with young children; for the care of sexually exploited children; and for medical child-protective teams based at the Department of Health. Also, more money will go to Healthy Families Florida, a child-abuse prevention program with a high rate of success.

Negotiators also set aside $10 million for community-based care agencies, known as CBCs, that provide adoption, foster-care and case-management services.

The agencies had asked for $25.4 million. They argued that an influx of new child protective investigators would swell the numbers of children in foster care and generate a demand for them to provide not only more case management but more services dealing with addiction, mental illness and domestic violence.

“The dollar amount doesn’t keep pace with the growth of investigators,” said Mike Watkins, chief executive officer of Big Bend Community Based Care. “It doesn’t address the root causes of child abuse and neglect, which are substance abuse and mental health.”

The expenditures are also less than Gov. Rick Scott had recommended for child protective investigators. Scott had called for $31 million for 400 new investigators to reduce caseloads to 10 and deploy two-person investigative teams for the most high-risk cases. He also recommended the $8.1 million that the six sheriffs’ offices received to perform child protective investigations.

“After over six years of no increases, this was much needed,” said Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri, whose agency conducts the investigations. “We stressed that the request was based on a formula that would reduce investigator caseloads to acceptable ranges.”

He said the additional funding would increase the number of child-protective investigators employed by the sheriffs by 56 positions, bringing their caseloads in line with the 12 to 14 standard set by the Child Welfare League of America.

Overall, advocates expressed relief that lawmakers had boosted their ability to provide services.

Leisa Wiseman, spokeswoman for the Florida Coalition Against Domestic Violence, pointed to the money that lawmakers also approved for a project pairing domestic-violence advocates with child-protective investigators to serve families dealing with both domestic violence and child abuse.

She said one of the three most-common calls to the state’s child abuse hotline concerns threats due to family violence.

“This project works to keep children safely with the non-offending parent, while holding perpetrators accountable,” Wiseman said. “Florida will lead the nation by expanding this successful program statewide.”

And Mark Fontaine, executive director of the Florida Alcohol & Drug Abuse Association, was happy about new funding for substance abuse and mental health treatment programs, which he and others have long argued are the main causes of child abuse and neglect.

“The Legislature clearly recognized the need to address drug treatment for the parents, and they committed some resources to do that,” Fontaine said.

The agreement on spending came on the same day the Senate Appropriations Committee passed a sweeping child-welfare reform measure (SB 1666) that is now ready for a floor vote. The House version of the bill passed its last committee Monday.

This report is by Margie Menzel with The News Service of Florida.

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