A Senate panel on Tuesday unanimously approved three measures that would make wide-ranging changes to Florida's child-welfare system after a series of highly publicized deaths last year that involved child abuse and neglect.
The Senate Children, Families and Elder Affairs Committee passed provisions that would help children in state care by keeping siblings together and by providing subsidies to caregivers who aren't related to the children they take in.
Another provision would create a criminal offense for abandoning a child and provide prosecutors with a tool to stop rehoming, illegal adoptions that put children at great risk.
Others would revamp the Department of Children and Families, adding an assistant secretary for child welfare and a consortium of state university social-work programs called the Florida Institute for Child Welfare. The institute would conduct research and policy analysis to advise the state and improve the education and training of the child-welfare workforce.
One bill, SPB 7072, by committee Chairwoman Eleanor Sobel, D-Hollywood, would require 80 percent of newly hired child protective investigators and their supervisors to hold college degrees in social work. It would exempt them from paying tuition and fees for those credits and offer a loan reimbursement program as well.
"We send a firefighter to fight fires," Sobel said. "We need to send a social worker to do social work."
A second bill, SPB 7074 by Sen. Nancy Detert, R-Venice, would require that when siblings are removed from homes as the result of abuse, neglect, or abandonment, the Department of Children and Families must make every effort to keep the siblings together and, if separated, to keep them in communication with one another and reunited as quickly as feasible, unless doing so would not be in the best interest of the children.
Miranda Phillips of the advocacy group Florida Youth Shine told lawmakers she hadn't seen her brother in five years, since he was adopted, because his adoptive parents wouldn't allow it.
"This hurts me a lot, because I feel like the only family I have has been taken from me, and now I'm alone," Phillips said.
The bill also requires the Department of Children and Families to conduct certain investigations with rapid response teams and to note on its website all children's deaths reported to its child-abuse hotline. The bill would expand the scope of child deaths to be reviewed by the statewide child-death abuse review committee to include all child deaths reported to the hotline. And it expands the department's Relative Caregiver Program to include nonrelatives who are willing to assume custody of a dependent child.
A third measure, SPB 7076 by Sen. Denise Grimsley, R-Sebring, would provide services for medically complex children in their homes and communities to the greatest extent possible. It would require a child protection team to evaluate reports of medical neglect and allow the Department of Children and Families to place children in medical foster homes.
Most of the public comment was positive, but the panel passed the measures with the understanding that they would see further changes in future committees, which have yet to be determined.
Howard Talenfeld, president of the advocacy group Florida's Children First, told lawmakers there were still gaps in the system that could cause more fatalities.