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Panel approves changes to child protection, limits welfare to drug felons

A House panel unanimously passed a bill today that would beef up child-abuse investigations in a number of ways. The sponsor cited the case of Nubia Barahona, a foster child who died last year in DCF custody.

Another bill, which would bar convicted drug abusers from getting cash assistance or food stamps, passed more narrowly, 9 to 6.

The child protection bill, HB 803, is sponsored by Rep. Jose Felix Diaz, R-Miami. In his presentation to the House Health and Human Services Access Subcommittee, Diaz said he took on the challenge after accompanying a young caseworker into Miami's most dangerous neighborhoods to investigate eight cases of suspected child abuse or neglect.

It was "horrific, heart-wrenching," to see the children's plight and the hard work caseworkers must do, Diaz said.

Diaz said the bill improves training of those who answer abuse-hotline calls; gives investigators authority to close cases when they determine a report of abuse is false so they can concentrate on serious "red flags"; allows parents to call the hotline to ask for help; standardizes data systems so that all who collaborate on child-abuse investigations can communicate; and gives DCF authority to seek an injunction to oust an abuser from a home, not just remove a child.

In other action, the subcommittee sharply debated a bill that would bar cash assistance or food stamps to those who have felony drug convictions unless they present a certificate showing they have completed substance-abuse treatment.

Rep. Jimmie T. Smith, R-Inverness, said his bill, HB 813, is intended to protect children. It says that the disqualified parent may appoint an alternative adult with a clean record -- a "protective payee" -- to receive the money on behalf of the children.

Some subcommittee members raised questions about the bill's potential legal problems, in that it would further punish former inmates who have served time. Others said they worried it would create paperwork delays that would leave children hungry.

Technically, the bill would remove a provision in Florida Law that prohibits the denial of cash assistance and food stamps based solely on a felony drug conviction; only those convicted of drug trafficking can legally be denied.

The bill has an identical Senate companion, SB 1128, by Sen. Steve Oelrich, R-Cross Creek.

--Health News Florida is an independent online publication dedicated to journalism in the public interest. Questions or comments may be addressed to Editor Carol Gentry at 727-410-3266 or by e-mail.