After more than a year of passionate debate, a new law that makes major changes to Floridas troubled child welfare system goes into effect this week.
Gov. Rick Scott on Monday signed the measure (SB 1666), which contains a wide range of provisions aimed at shoring up the state's response to child abuse and neglect. It comes after a public outcry last year over a series of deaths of children who were already known to the Department of Children and Families when they died. The uproar prompted lawmakers of both parties to begin crafting legislation as early as September.
But the bill signing doesn't mean the debate is over.
Just hours after Scott approved the measure, the conservative blog "Red State" published an entry entitled, "Rick Scott Signs Terrible Law Expanding Florida DCF's Power." Blogger Leon H. Wolf pointed to an Associated Press article about the bill. The story noted: "It clearly states that protecting a child from abuse is paramount and more important than keeping a family together."
"One of our most treasured principles as a republic is the principle that, where possible and in the absence of a compelling contrary interest, children should be raised by their parents," Wolf wrote. "Florida's DCF now has a clear statutory provision to the contrary along with a huge budget and a mandate to find more abuse."
The bill does beef up enforcement of the safety plans developed for abusive and neglectful parents. Now child protective investigators must develop a safety plan before leaving a child in the home. And parents must do more than promise to stop drinking or to stay away from an abusive partner or spouse -- they must either follow through or lose custody of their kids.
"Many of the deaths we've had, and many of the problems we've had, have really been the result of the lack of clarity on the safety of the child," said Rep. Gayle Harrell, the Stuart Republican who sponsored the bill in the House. "That is paramount, and it's very clear in the statute."
"It isn't about the parent, it's about the child," said Sen. Denise Grimsley, the Sebring Republican who chairs the Senate budget panel for health and human services.
Under the law, rapid-response teams will conduct immediate investigations of child deaths. The Department of Children and Families has already begun posting data about child deaths on its website, and the Child Abuse Death Review Committee is expanding its duties to include investigating all child deaths reported to the state abuse hotline.
"With the signing of SB 1666, I believe DCF has a clear view of where the Legislature and the governor intend for them to go," Grimsley said. "We need them to be upfront and open in order to learn from any mistakes."
The new law also directs the department to investigate all calls to the hotline reporting child-on-child sexual abuse among dependent children and amends the Rilya Wilson Act, which requires that a child under court-ordered supervision or in DCF custody must be enrolled in child care. Now, at-risk children must be in child care from infancy, rather than from the age of 3. The child-care requirement is in place to ensure that someone outside the home is watching the child.
The bill also compensates qualified nonrelatives -- such as neighbors, teachers and coaches -- who take in dependent children. It recommends that, whenever possible, siblings be kept together and medically fragile children be kept in their communities.
Further, the law seeks to professionalize the child-welfare workforce by hiring people with social work backgrounds and helping current employees earn social-work degrees through tuition waivers and loan-forgiveness programs. It beefs up accountability measures for the community-based care agencies that provide adoption and foster-care services. And it creates the Florida Institute for Child Welfare to conduct policy research, and the position of assistant secretary for child welfare at the Department of Children and Families.
"We've been lacking for so many years an advocate in the department," said Mike Watkins, chief executive officer of Big Bend Community Based Care.
Most of the law's provisions have garnered praise. A white paper released this week by David Bundy and Shelley Katz, the top administrators of the Children's Home Society of Florida, applauded the bill and the accompanying budget "that allocates an additional $38.8 million to protect and help Florida's vulnerable children."
Bundy and Katz's organization provides adoption, foster-care and family services for community-based care organizations.
Of the $38.8 million, roughly $21 million is earmarked for 270 additional child protective investigators; $10 million will go to the community-based care agencies, mostly to hire and retain case managers. The remainder is spread among other programs meant to help prevent abuse.
However, as Bundy and Katz continued, "there is still much more work to be done. It is imperative that the Legislature continues to prioritize and invest in child welfare."
"It still isn't enough money, and it's too focused on more personnel instead of more and better services," said former DCF special counsel Neil Skene, who addressed Harrell's committee and the Senate Children, Families and Elder Affairs Committee as they developed the legislation.
Most experts said the state lacks sufficient treatment services for mental health and substance abuse, which figure in the great majority of child deaths from maltreatment.
And both Harrell and Watkins said they hope to see the next round of legislation extend safety planning so that paramours can receive services.
"It's not the end of the road," Harrell said of the new law. "It's the beginning of the road."
But supporters agree that the new law, by raising the bar on transparency and accountability, is a good first step on the road to reform.
"You can't sweep problems under the rug and expect them to go away," Grimsley said. "You have to bring them out in the open to learn from them. I trust that will be the direction DCF and the (community-based care agencies) take going forward. I've been very disappointed in both over the past year because they have been so focused on money and not policy."
Grimsley said SB 1666 is intended to change that direction.
"If we don't see that happen, (Senate sponsor Eleanor) Sobel and I will be back with more legislation," she said.