With Florida’s coffers filling again and state leaders focusing on child protection, advocates are hopeful the 2014 legislative session will bring both policy and funding gains for children’s services.
High-profile issues include a massive crackdown on sexually violent predators and an overhaul of the child-welfare system, both via the Department of Children and Families.
Last year, Florida saw a wave of deaths of children already known to the department, including 8-year-old Cherish Perrywinkle of Jacksonville. The girl was abducted, raped and strangled in June, and a registered sex offender has been charged. And in August, the South Florida Sun Sentinel reported that 600 sexual predators had been freed in the state since 1999, going on to commit 463 child molestations, 121 rapes and 14 murders.
Lawmakers have been working on sexual-predator and child-abuse legislation since September.
On Tuesday, the opening day of session, the full Senate is expected to pass four bills making the state “scorched earth” for sexual predators, in the words of Senate President Don Gaetz, R-Niceville. The House is a week or two behind, but fully on board.
And after a scathing review of 40 children’s deaths from abuse and neglect, lawmakers are intent on getting to the bottom of systemic woes at the Department of Children and Families. Committees have been exploring ways to reduce the caseloads and turnover of front-line staff and considering a requirement that protective investigators have social-work degrees.
“There are going to be tragedies,” said House Speaker Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel. “But I think there’s agreement, unilaterally, that the process that we currently have, the funding mechanisms that we currently have, are not meeting the need.”
Also moving are bills aimed at improving the health and safety standards of early learning programs and extending low-cost health insurance to more children.
Gov. Rick Scott included 400 new child-protective investigators for the Department of Children and Families in his 2014 budget recommendations, along with 26 quality-assurance positions and the expansion of a pilot program using two-person investigator teams for high-risk cases.
If legislative leaders approve — as both Gaetz and Weatherford have indicated they likely will — that would drop the average caseload for child-protective investigators from 13.3 to 10.
Both chambers have spent months examining the state’s child-welfare system and are expected to propose bills aimed at stabilizing it. Their findings suggest that reduced caseloads are critical to improving the Department of Children and Families’ response to child abuse and neglect.
“Part of it’s money,” Weatherford said. “Part of it’s policy. But I will consider this session a failure if we don’t do something to try to address this problem.”
Gaetz has also said he supports increased accountability measures for the privatized community-based care agencies that provide local adoption, foster care and case-management services.
Last week, the Senate Children, Families and Elder Affairs Committee rolled out a proposal that would require DCF to “clarify financial parameters and controls” for the community-based care agencies. The agencies are working with the panel to modify the proposal, and Gaetz said they are welcome to offer their evidence.
“But I’m not going to support those who say, ‘Because it’s hard to change the system, because it’s hard to reform it, we’re just not going to do it,’ ” Gaetz said.
Scott is recommending more money for Florida’s early education programs, and the House Education Committee has developed a bill to upgrade their health, safety and teaching standards.
Scott’s recommendations include a one-time $30 million boost to the school-readiness programs, which provide subsidized child care to the children of low-income working Floridians and served 223,000 children last year. Florida has long had a waiting list, now estimated at 70,000 children, for places in the programs.
Scott is also calling for an increase in per-pupil spending for the voluntary pre-kindergarten program, in which more than 174,000 children are enrolled. Currently the state spends $2,383 per child; Scott has asked for an increase to $2,483 per child. The national average was $3,841 in 2012, according to the National Institute for Early Education Research.
Meanwhile, the House Education Committee’s bill would license private providers in the school-readiness program. The bill would also require providers to notify parents of health and safety violations and to post prominently citations that result in disciplinary action. Providers with Class I violations — actions that could hurt or even kill a child — within the previous year could lose their eligibility for the school-readiness program.
Florida’s early education programs haven’t seen significant new funding in a decade, but are making gains as legislative leaders come to understand their role in economic development.
“There’s been a tremendous amount of data and science that has shown that investing in early childhood education pays huge dividends to your state,” Weatherford said.
Florida is still ranked 49th in the nation for the number of uninsured children under 18, according to the Georgetown University Health Policy Institute — partly because it’s one of the largest states. But the institute also found that Florida has moved from 48th to 46th in percentage of uninsured children.
According to Rich Robleto, executive director of the Florida Healthy Kids Corp., said the state had 436,000 uninsured children in 2012, or 10.9 percent of all children under 18. In 2008, there were 667,000 Florida kids uninsured, or 16.7 percent of the population.
Advocates continue to whittle away at those numbers. Two failed 2013 measures that would have expanded KidCare, the subsidized children’s health-insurance plan for low-income families, are returning this year with the same sponsors.
Sen. Rene Garcia, R-Hialeah, and Rep. Jose Felix Diaz, R-Miami, are once again backing a proposal (SB 282 and HB 7) that would remove a barrier to coverage for children of legal immigrants. It didn’t get a hearing last year, in part because the Agency for Health Care Administration estimated its cost at $500 million —– enough to cover the children of all Florida immigrants. But this year, the tab is estimated at roughly $20 million, and last week the bill unanimously passed the House Health Innovation Subcommittee.
The other measure (HB 917) addresses what is called presumptive eligibility. It would bridge the gap between when a child enrolls in KidCare and a final eligibility decision is made, usually 45 days. The measure passed a committee in each chamber last year, but then stalled. This year it’s sponsored again in the House by Rep. Gayle Harrell, R-Stuart; a Senate companion hasn’t been filed but is expected.
–Margie Menzel, News Service of Florida