Children's Advocates Mourn Dead Bills
Children's issues had a rocky legislative session, thanks in part to its abrupt ending.
One proposal that would have boosted health and safety standards for early-education programs (SB 7006 and HB 7017) died for the second straight year. Supporters said the proposal's failure means leaving some kids in risky situations.
"It was a major disappointment," said Ted Granger, executive director of the United Way of Florida. "The failure to pass these bills ensures that those children are going to be staying in unsafe places for another year."
Another measure that would have expanded low-cost health care coverage to the children of legal immigrants (SB 294) failed for the third year --- although its longtime sponsor, Senate Health and Human Services Appropriations Chairman Rene Garcia said he'll try to add it in the budget process instead.
"Nothing's certain," Garcia, R-Hialeah, said. "But I'm going to try my hardest."
But perhaps the most disappointed were supporters of a sweeping proposal (SB 7068 and HB 7119) to expand mental-health and substance-abuse services. They say providing such services to parents can help prevent fatal consequences for children. The proposal expansion failed to pass.
"The need for these services is based on the data that we know, on the facts," said Christina Spudeas, executive director of the advocacy group Florida's Children First. "Without those services in the community, we already know that children will die."
Proving the point even as legislative committees began meeting in early January, 5-year-old Phoebe Jonchuck drowned that week, after her father allegedly dropped her from a bridge into Tampa Bay during a psychotic episode.
And on March 20, the body of 3-year-old Ahziya Osceola was found hidden under piles of clothing in the laundry room of his home. Early reports indicate that both his parents had substance-abuse issues that contributed to his maltreatment.
Lawmakers had already made the connection -- especially Rep. Gayle Harrell, R-Stuart, and Sen. Eleanor Sobel, D-Hollywood. This is the third year the two have chaired legislative panels that oversee the Department of Children and Families.
Harrell and Sobel collaborated last year on a far-reaching child-welfare reform bill, following a long series of children's deaths from abuse and neglect. Harrell worked with Garcia this year on the mental-health revamp, saying that substance-abuse and mental-health issues were the greatest root causes of child-maltreatment deaths.
But Garcia reluctantly let the revamp proposal die rather than accept an amendment approved by the House. The chambers couldn't work out the differences, at least in part because the House adjourned and went home Tuesday, three days before the scheduled end of the regular legislative session.
One measure that passed during the session was a bill (SB 7078) intended to fix minor issues related to last year's reform of the child-welfare system.
Now headed to the desk of Gov. Rick Scott, the bill would expand the role of the state's Critical Incident Rapid Response Team, which the secretary of the Department of Children and Families can dispatch to investigate child deaths, and require services to be "evidence-based and trauma-informed" -- a recommendation of the Florida Institute for Child Welfare, which was created as part of last year's law.
The new requirement would put into law a more child-centered approach based on the idea that abused kids can recover by addressing the experiences they've endured, such as family violence or addicted parents.
Also, Sen. Nancy Detert, R-Venice, pointed to a bill (HB 437) that passed and was dubbed the "The Regis Little Act to Protect Children with Special Needs." The bill, which is headed to Scott, would provide guardians for children with developmental disabilities or delays as they age out of the foster care system.
Some advocates, while disappointed over the failure of policy-related bills, hope the budget process will keep funding in place --- for early education, for instance. Lawmakers will have to return to the Capitol in May or June for a special session to negotiate and pass a budget.