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Advocates Happy With New Child Welfare Law Taking Effect Saturday

Leon County Judge John Cooper on June 30, 2022, in a screen grab from The Florida Channel.
The Florida Channel
Leon County Judge John Cooper on June 30, 2022, in a screen grab from The Florida Channel.
Leon County Judge John Cooper on June 30, 2022, in a screen grab from The Florida Channel.
Credit MGN Online
The Florida Channel

Advocates are happy about a new law on the books slated to take effect Saturday to help protect kids within Florida’s child welfare system.

“We have a mother who had four children removed,” said Victoria Zepp with the Florida Coalition for Children. “Her son’s eye socket had to be rebuilt because she beat him so badly.”

Zepp says it’s unfortunate that there are kids out there who aren’t getting the help they need because there are no laws to help them.

For example, in the case Zepp gave involving the mother, the four abused kids were able to be removed from the home. But, when the community later found out that mother was pregnant with twins, Zepp says they found there was nothing they could do to protect the unborn kids.

“The community based care organization lobbied to ensure that those two children were a party to the case, but they weren’t,” she added. “So, that mother, she self-reported that of her twins, she murdered the boy and put them in the dumpster. We still haven’t found that boy because she can’t remember because she was too high at the time. That can’t happen.”

That’s why Zepp says she’s glad a new child welfare law adds new protections for kids, like these. One of its many provisions ensures parents do not get their kids back unless they meet certain conditions.

“And, if there’s a new condition that happens, that’s included,” Zepp continued. “Nor if a child has already been removed from a parent and they become pregnant, those unborn children are now protected. Not meaning that we’re going to violate anybody’s rights, but there’s a healthy set of eyes on that parent. So, that was huge.”

Rep. Cyndi Stevenson (R-St. Johns) helped author the new child welfare law. About 100 pages long, she says it also includes a whole host of other provisions:

“Almost like laundry list, but it’s a really important list that will help the Department of Children and Families, and the Judiciary, and other involved in the system to do their jobs better,” she said.

In her mind, Stevenson says this new law will cut through a lot of red tape. For example, she says the new law ensures more timely access to medical records for child protective investigators “by permitting hospitals and physician offices to release patient records to the Department of Children and Families or its contractors for the purposes of conducting an investigation for cases of abuse, neglect, or exploitation.”

Stevenson says it also amends current Florida law for when the rights of parent can be severed.

“Under current Florida law, a judge may not consider a parent’s abuse history from other states, when considering rights should be terminated,” she stated. “This would enable judges to consider the parent’s full history. Crossing a state line does not make a child any safer and parents should not get a clean slate just because they crossed our state line. This is particularly important for border states, like Alabama and Georgia.”

Rep. Gayle Harrell (R-Stuart) heads the House committee that oversees children issues. And, she also helped write a law to overhaul Florida’s child welfare agency years ago. She calls this a next step.

“Our committee—the Children, Families, and Seniors committee—has been working on child abuse issues for the last five years,” she said. “We have been very cautious and sincere in how we have moved forward in the major reforms we are making, and this is the next step.”

Meanwhile, the new law also includes provisions for those not in the child welfare system. Those range from addressing needs of homeless youth to creating a task force to address involuntary mental health examinations of Florida kids.

For more news updates, follow Sascha Cordner on Twitter: @SaschaCordner .

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