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Senators Look For More Ways To Boost Adoptions

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A bill that would provide incentives to state employees who adopt children in Florida's foster-care system continued moving forward Wednesday with several changes.

The Senate Health and Human Services Appropriations Subcommittee unanimously approved the measure (SB 320) by Sen. Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, with amendments aimed at boosting adoptions still further.

The bill would provide a one-time cash payment of $5,000 per child to state employees who adopt children from the foster-care system and $10,000 per child for those who adopt children who also have special needs.

After the amendments, the bill now includes what Sen. Aaron Bean, R-Fernandina Beach, called the "Why Wait Amendment," making eligibility retroactive to Jan. 1.

"So if someone's on the fence about adopting a child, why wait? Do it now," said Bean, who proposed the amendment. "We're going to unite some more families."

Gaetz also proposed an amendment that would bar the Department of Children and Families and the privatized community-based care agencies from "showing prejudice if a foster-care parent wishes to home-school a child placed within their home by the child-welfare system."

"There was literally a rule that the department had that said that if you were a home-schooling family, you couldn't be a foster-care family and in the pipeline for adoption," Gaetz said. "When we pushed on the department, they said they had no evidence to support that rule, and they were going to repeal or change the rule. We want to make sure it's changed in statute as well."

"What kind of accountability do we have when it comes to home-schooling, checking on the children?" asked Sen. Chris Smith, D-Ft. Lauderdale.

Gaetz, a former school superintendent, said school districts have a process for making sure that an approved plan for home-schooling a child is being carried out.

He also pointed to last year's budget allocation for nearly 200 more child-protective investigators in the state child-welfare system.

"We have the eyes and we have the ears," Gaetz said. "No one has any evidence whatsoever that there has been any problem associated with home-schooling children in the foster care system or in adoptive families."

That amendment passed as well.

A third change would require a follow-up visit by child-welfare officials one year after an adoption is finalized. As written, it would charge the Department of Children and Families or the community-based care agencies with conducting the visits.

But Sen. Eleanor Sobel, D-Hollywood, said the bill ought to clarify which agency is accountable.

"That's something that could easily slip through the cracks," Sobel said. "I think we need to decide whether it's (the department) or the (community-based care agencies) … My preference is, since the CBCs are getting extra money to do this, they should be doing the follow-up."

Gaetz agreed, promising to further amend the bill to that effect. He also noted that families who adopt children often face challenges as a result.

"Sadly, we have some circumstances where some children are actually brought back," he said. "What we're trying to do here is to have a contact point to say somebody has to stay in touch with these families --- not to intrude on their lives, but to offer any kind of support or help that they might need."

The bill, at least in part, would re-create a popular adoption program that began in 2000 but was repealed in 2010, due to declining state revenues during the recession.