Series Of Child Deaths Spur Legislation

Senate proposal does not change investigation limit

Mar. 17, 2014

After a series of highly publicized child deaths last year, the House and Senate are taking different approaches to fixing the state child-welfare system — but both are considering ambitious measures that cover a lot of ground.

Both chambers would require more professionalism — with an emphasis on social-work skills — for child protective investigators. Both would keep siblings together in the state system and help families care for medically complex children. Both would require the Department of Children and Families to publish the basic facts of all deaths of children reported to the state abuse hotline. And both would create critical incident response teams to conduct immediate investigations of those deaths and other serious episodes of child abuse and neglect.

“These are our kids — we have got to make sure that they are safe,” said Rep. Gayle Harrell, the Stuart Republican who chairs the House Healthy Families Subcommittee. “We are not done. We are going to work at this and work at this until we get it right.”

On Wednesday, Harrell led her panel through a workshop on the House’s omnibus child welfare reform bill (PCB HFS 14-03). The day before, the Senate Children, Families and Elder Affairs Committee unanimously passed three bills (SB 1666, SB 1668 and SB 1670) that contain many of the same provisions.

The sweeping legislation is the result of a wave of child deaths last year that sparked outrage and contributed to the resignation of the secretary of the Department of Children and Families last July.

Since then, legislative hearings have shown that turnover at the top of the department — which has had seven secretaries and interim secretaries since 1999 — is contributing to a system-wide instability that lawmakers want to address.

For instance, both chambers are proposing a new position, assistant DCF secretary for child welfare, because the secretary is responsible for too many areas.

Both chambers are also proposing a consortium of state university social-work programs called the Florida Institute for Child Welfare, which would conduct research and policy analysis to advise the state and improve the education and training of the child-welfare workforce.

The biggest difference between the chambers involves safety planning for children who could be in danger of maltreatment. The Senate plan doesn’t change the current system, which limits DCF investigations to 60 days, within which the child protective investigator must verify the abuse.

“But what the investigator can’t do is ensure that there’s any kind of safety for the child after that 60-day period of time,” said Howard Talenfeld, president of the advocacy group Florida’s Children First. “Because there’s no jurisdiction, you can’t ensure safety no matter how good your investigators are.”

Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Cindy Lederman

Talenfeld urged the Senate panel to adopt a House provision that would not rely on promises by a parent, caregiver or legal custodian when developing a plan to ensure the child’s safety as the result of an investigation.

“We want to make sure safety plans are followed,” Harrell said.

So does Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Cindy Lederman, a national expert on child welfare.

“The scope of the investigations must be expanded to include family functioning and family history,” Lederman said. “Without that, these children are still in danger.”

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