Until the last minute, members of the Florida Senate amended their child-welfare reform measure and then, by a vote of 37-0, sent it to the House -- its last legislative hurdle before going to Gov. Rick Scott.
The House version (HB 7169) was unanimously approved by the House Appropriations Committee on Tuesday.
The two chambers are ever closer on policy details, and on Tuesday they quickly agreed on funding -- an additional $47 million for child protection in the budget year that begins July 1.
But on Friday, the policy was still being ironed out on the Senate floor. Senate Children, Families and Elder Affairs Committee Chairwoman Eleanor Sobel, D-Hollywood, and Nancy Detert, the Venice Republican known for championing young adults aging out of foster care, proposed a series of amendments.
One stipulated that a safety plan for at-risk children can't rely on parental promises to stop drinking or allowing abusive boyfriends in the home. Another provision requires the privatized community-based care agencies, which oversee adoption, foster care and other services, to post their top executives' salaries on their websites.
Detert also offered an amendment tweaking perhaps her top priority: stipends for nonrelative caregivers, the neighbors and teachers and family friends who take in abused and neglected children but who arent blood relatives and dont qualify for financial support.
The bill had already added these foster families to those eligible for small stipends. But Detert discovered that the foster children of nonrelative caregivers wouldnt qualify for the same help with higher education as other foster kids.
"Since the bill will put children placed with nonrelatives in the Relative Caregiver Program, we needed to revise the tuition-exemption statutes slightly to include those children," she said. "We do not want to inadvertently keep kids from getting tuition because they're (placed with) nonrelatives."
The legislative scrutiny had been underway for months, following media reports of a wave of child deaths from abuse and neglect. Wider legislative efforts ramped up as it became clear that many of the victims had already been known to the Department of Children and Families.
Overall, both chambers' bills require more transparency from DCF about child deaths and more accountability from the lead community-based care agencies. Both would use tuition waivers and loan forgiveness programs to help front-line staff get their social-work degrees.
The bills would create rapid-response teams to conduct immediate investigations of child deaths, establish the Florida Institute for Child Welfare to conduct policy research and create the position of assistant secretary for child welfare at DCF. Both would keep siblings together and medically fragile children in their communities whenever possible.
The issue of keeping siblings together is deeply important to the advocates for youth who lobby lawmakers about improving the child welfare system. It prompted another Detert amendment, addressing earlier bill language about keeping siblings together in group homes when space is available. Advocates have argued that the bill language could lead to more children being placed there than with foster families.
Detert said studies have shown that toddlers who were placed in foster homes were much more likely to form attachments with their caregivers than children who had been institutionalized.
"Foster homes with a loving foster family should be our first placement for every child," Detert said.
But Sen. Tom Lee, a Brandon Republican who sits on the board of directors of A Kid's Place -- a group home in his district that prides itself on providing a family setting -- said foster homes aren't always available to take sibling groups.
"Sen. Detert wants to try to keep them together, and so do I," he said. "We prefer to keep them together in a foster facility, but that's not always practical."
The amended bill passed the Senate to applause.
"This bill needs to be passed ASAP," Sobel said.