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Senators Clash Over Exemptions From Child-Care Licensing

Sen._Eleanor_Sobel.jpg
Florida Legislature

  A bill that would make clear national groups like the Boys and Girls Clubs are exempt from Florida licensing requirements is stalled in a legislative committee, sparking a clash between two state senators.

Sen. Eleanor Sobel, chairwoman of the Senate Children, Families and Elder Affairs Committee, began a meeting last week by announcing that the bill (SB 250) by her fellow Broward County Democrat, Chris Smith, would be postponed "because we don't have enough information."

"As senators, we owe it to the children of this great state to look into who is licensed, who is not licensed, and why," Sobel, D-Hollywood, said after the meeting.

Smith's bill would change current law governing child-care facilities to specify that national organizations with their own standards for local clubs --- such as Big Brothers Big Sisters, the Boys and Girls Clubs and the Girl Scouts and Boy Scouts --- would not be subject to licensure by the state.

The meeting last week was the second time Sobel's committee had postponed the bill. The first was on Feb. 19, and Smith said that since then, he'd met with committee members to discuss their concerns.

"I had the votes, but Sen. Sobel just can't comprehend or understand the law," Smith, D-Fort Lauderdale, said. "That seems to be a problem."

The bill is intended to clarify a situation decades in the making. Every child-care facility in Florida is required to have a license and renew it annually though the Department of Children and Families. In 1987, certain religious and national groups were exempted from that requirement, but since then questions have arisen.

The Boys and Girls Clubs --- generally known for after-school sports --- have been exempt, along with similar clubs. Smith said that's because the clubs don't provide child care, which is considered in law to be for younger children, but after-school care for older children. Other officials, however, contend that since the exemption was passed, the Boys and Girls Clubs have been serving children as young as age 6.

"There is some confusion, I think, in the current statute," said Department of Children and Families Secretary Mike Carroll. "From the department's standpoint, I would like clarification on whether it's our intent within the state to exempt national organizations who do provide child care. … Or if we don't, that's fine, too. But we have to clarify that, because I feel we're put in the middle of that right now."

Former Lt. Gov. Jeff Kottkamp, who lobbies for the Boys and Girls Clubs, said the bill was prompted by the fact that "the agencies that we deal with don't accept one another's background screenings."

Kottkamp pointed to the Boys and Girls Clubs' use of what's known as "level-two screening," which is a fingerprint-based, national criminal history search. "The Boys and Girls Clubs far exceed what anyone else is doing," he told the committee last month.

But Janet Mabry, a lobbyist who represents private child-care providers, spoke against the bill that day. She said that while the Boys and Girls Clubs provide background screening, their exemption from licensure means they aren’t subject to the same health and safety standards of child-care facilities.

"The question is, as they (lawmakers) expand their definition to national organizations providing after-school care, who are those, and do we want people to be exempt from health and safety and minimum requirements?" Mabry asked.

Smith and Kottkamp contend the clubs also comply with other local standards, such as for fire safety. "Meeting local standards for those communities --- they've been doing that for years," Smith said Monday.

Sobel, meanwhile, said she is seeking more information on how the national groups maintain health and safety standards at their local clubs.

"I worked with the Boys and Girls Clubs in Broward about better background screening and definitely supported their change to Level 2," she wrote in an email. "But when it came to licensing … the national organization never subsequently responded to Senate and House staff nor to me as of this email about national standards for health and safety. The Boys and Girls Clubs, I believe, rely on the national standards for their chapters (and) no one has seen a copy."

Sobel also pointed to a 2000 opinion on the matter by then-Attorney General Bob Butterworth.

"Given the clear legislative intent to establish statewide minimum standards for the care and protection of children in child care facilities, while not infringing on religious rights or parochial programs or regulating the activity programs of membership organizations that do not provide child care, it is my opinion that programs operated by … membership organizations that fall within the definition of 'child care program' are not exempt from licensure by the Department of Children and Families," Butterworth wrote.

Passions are running high. Sobel said she'd received 45 texts to her personal cell phone with the message, "As a resident of Broward County, we ask you to support SB 250 which we understood you were supporting with the changes you requested up until today."

Smith said he'd had nothing to do with the texts and was sorry they had become part of the discussion.

He also said he's not sure whether he'll bring the bill back before Sobel's committee or try another legislative tactic.

"After 14 years in the Legislature, I know how to get issues through," he said. "This is an important issue that affects hundreds of thousands of kids around the state, and we've got plenty of time to get it done."