Senate President Don Gaetz on Tuesday vowed to make reforming Florida's child-welfare system a top priority of the 2014 legislative session, as a Senate panel continued its push for specific proposals to do the job.
"We will reform a child-welfare system so porous that 430 children known to (the Department of Children and Families) have disappeared or died in the last five years," Gaetz, R-Niceville, said in an address to open the annual session.
Both chambers have been reviewing reform measures since last fall, following a wave of child deaths from abuse and neglect. Gaetz and House Speaker Will Weatherford pledged more funding so that children in the court system will have guardians ad litem to advocate for them.
And on Tuesday, before the session ceremonies began, the Senate Children, Families and Elder Affairs Committee heard from a general magistrate and the heads of two community-based care lead agencies about draft language the panel is preparing for a vote next week.
One proposal would require the Department of Children and Families to make public the deaths of children reported to the state abuse hotline. It would require the secretary of the department to appoint two assistant secretaries, one for child welfare and one for substance abuse and mental health, and to conduct immediate investigations of deaths or other serious incidents in which children are harmed. It would create statewide and local multi-agency death review committees.
A second proposal would require child-protective investigators and their supervisors hired as of July 1 to have bachelor's degrees in social work from accredited university programs. It would create tuition exemptions and student-loan forgiveness programs for child-protective investigators now employed by the Department of Children and Families and the six counties whose sheriffs conduct those investigations.
The proposal also would require employees and subcontractors of community-based care lead agencies to be professionally certified. And it would require the maintenance of a database, accessible to the public, of all professionals holding those certifications -- including any histories of ethical violations.
Nancy Wilkov, general magistrate for the 8th Judicial Circuit in Gainesville, told lawmakers the gaps that need to be addressed applied not only to child deaths last year, but to earlier ones as well, including those of Nubia Barahona in 2011 and Gabriel Myers in 2009.
She urged the panel to stress critical thinking and communication skills for the case managers who oversee foster care and adoption services for the local community-based care agencies.
"There's a real gap when I get new case managers (in my courtroom)," Wilkov said. "They seem not to understand the role of the court and how what they do fits into the court process and how all of the good casework that they are doing behind the scenes comes to nothing if they can't bring that to the decision-maker in an appropriate form."
Sen. Alan Hays, R-Umatilla, asked Wilkov if she ought to supply the case managers with a checklist, but the magistrate replied that many of those details were already in state law.
Wilkov said the case managers must be able to grasp what they need to supply at upcoming court dates.
"They need to register in their minds what's missing and what question they should be asking," she said. "Some caseworkers will do that on their own, and some will not."
The Senate panel also heard from the chief executive officers of two community-based care lead agencies, known as CBCs, about draft provisions dealing with the agencies' contracts with the state. CBCs currently receive $769 million from the state to provide foster care, adoption, case management and other services for about 2,300 children.
The panel's draft proposal includes a provision that would require CBCs to "demonstrate financial responsibility through an organized plan for regular fiscal audits and the posting of a performance bond." Another provision would require them to "provide for a regular independent auditing of its financial activities."
In response, Glen Casel, chief executive officer of the CBC of Central Florida, said there are already enough accountability measures in place for their agencies and others like them.
Casel pointed out that the community-based care agencies are evaluated by a host of entities, including their boards of directors and national accrediting bodies, the Department of Children and Families' monthly scorecard, fiscal and licensing evaluations, and the oversight of the governor, Legislature and judiciary.
"When you look at the number of kids that we're serving, I think we're a tremendous return on investment," said Mike Waltkins, chief executive officer of Big Bend Community Based Care.