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Plan Boosts Child-Protection Reforms

Leon County Judge John Cooper on June 30, 2022, in a screen grab from The Florida Channel.
Florida House of Representatives
The Florida Channel
Leon County Judge John Cooper on June 30, 2022, in a screen grab from The Florida Channel.

A House panel Tuesday approved a proposal aimed at tightening the sweeping reforms that lawmakers placed into Florida's child-welfare system last year.

The House Children, Families and Seniors Subcommittee unanimously approved a bill (PCB FCSS 15-02) that would tweak the new law, which passed after a series of child deaths due to abuse and neglect.

For instance, last year's measure created what are known as Critical Incident Rapid Response Teams. The teams are deployed by the secretary of the Department of Children and Families to quickly investigate child deaths in which there have been verified reports of maltreatment during the past year. Now, the subcommittee's bill would allow the teams to participate in open child-abuse investigations as well.

Additionally, the bill spells out that child protective services must be "trauma informed" --- that is, based on the idea that children can be rehabilitated by addressing the painful experiences they’ve endured, such as family violence or addicted parents.

"Untreated child trauma is a root cause of many of the most pressing problems that communities face, including poverty, crime, low academic achievement, addiction, mental health problems and poor health outcomes," noted the staff analysis of the bill.

The bill also specifies that community-based care organizations, which deliver most services to children and families in the state system, will "prioritize the use of services that are evidence-based and trauma-informed."

"It's a great step forward," said Patricia Babcock, interim director of the Florida Institute for Child Welfare. "Most of the parents that come into the system have experienced trauma themselves, either by being part of the child-welfare system as a child and/or by experiencing trauma as an adult."

Like the rapid-response teams, the Florida Institute for Child Welfare was established by last year's law, in part to fulfill the state's needs for research that would serve as a basis for practices that would improve the system. Babcock's first report to lawmakers included the recommendation that they place the requirement for trauma-informed care into law.

"We are building on 1666 (SB 1666, last year's law), taking some of the parking-lot issues that we put aside and really addressing them," subcommittee Chairwoman Gayle Harrell, R-Stuart, said. "We're also finding some glitches here and there that we felt we needed to address and also putting in place some of the recommendations coming out of the child welfare institute."

By the same token, the new law expanded the number and types of cases to be reviewed through the state Child Abuse Death Review Committee and local committees that support it. Before that, the committees only reviewed cases that had been verified as due to abuse or neglect. Since the new law took effect, however, the committees have been required to review all deaths reported to the state abuse hotline --- resulting in an increase in the number of their cases.

This year's bill directs the state committee to develop a system for collecting data from the local committees. Under the bill, the committee must use uniform methods of collecting data.

The bill also specifies which professions must be represented on the multidisciplinary local child death review committees: the state attorney's office, the medical examiner's office, the Department of Children and Families' child protection unit, the Department of Health's child protection team, law enforcement, the school district, a certified domestic-violence center, and providers of substance-abuse and mental-health treatment.

"In the past, some of our local committees have not been, perhaps, on the same page as others," Harrell said. "We want this to be --- when we look across the state, that we are all looking at the same things."