Gov. Rick Scott signed a sweeping bill Monday aimed at overhauling the child-welfare system after hundreds of child abuse-related deaths in the past five years.
The new law calls for a fundamental shift in the way the Department of Children and Families investigates and responds to cases. It clearly states that protecting a child from abuse is paramount and more important than keeping a family together. In the past, DCF has placed a premium on putting fewer children in foster care and, instead, offering family services while the child remains at home.
Experts say there are gaps in those services and lax enforcement, usually nothing more than a verbal agreement from a parent to stay away from an abusive spouse, attend parenting classes or to quit drugs. The new law also says safety plans can no longer rely on verbal promises from parents.
Democratic Sen. Eleanor Sobel, who shepherded the bill, called it “landmark legislation.”
The law will fund jobs for 270 additional child protective investigators to reduce caseloads. It also establishes a response team to quickly investigate child abuse deaths when the child had previous incidents with the system and adds a small amount of funding for at-risk families with young children. Child advocates said substance abuse treatment issues are at the heart of many child deaths.
The law also sets aside additional funds for sheriff’s offices handling abuse cases and DCF’s foster care contractors for services including hiring more caseworkers to deal with the influx of new foster children. The law also requires DCF to post child death information on its website in an effort to improve transparency and seeks to professionalize the workforce by hiring investigators with social work backgrounds.
“This legislation starts us down a path of learning from mistakes, particularly child fatalities, and ensuring our communities participate in making sure services are in place for those children and families most at risk,” said Sen. Denise Grimsley.
The new law comes on the heels of a scathing series from The Miami Herald, which highlighted the deaths of 477 children involved with the Department of Children and Families in the past five years. And a report released last fall reviewing 40 child deaths revealed that welfare authorities overlooked danger signs, such as parental drug abuse or domestic violence. Most children who died were younger than 5 and many of the deaths involved substance abuse.
Scott, who is campaigning for re-election, has seized on the issue and is launching a “Caring for Florida’s Families” tour Tuesday, where he’ll stop in several cities to discuss proposals including job training for foster kids who age out of the system, professionalizing the child care provider workforce, increasing resources for adoptive and foster families and partnering with the private sector to help people with disabilities find jobs.