TALLAHASSEE, FL. (WTXL) - Florida lawmakers will take up child-welfare reform again this year, trying to fix longstanding problems in a system that continues to show gaping holes in protecting vulnerable kids.
Last year the Legislature passed a wide-ranging law intended to fix as many of those problems as possible. The measure came after a public outcry over a series of deaths of children who were already known to the state Department of Children and Families when they died.
Lawmakers approved funding for 191 new child-protective investigators and tightened transparency requirements for the department. Now, with the law in effect, rapid-response teams conduct immediate investigations of certain children's deaths, and DCF has posted six years' worth of child-fatality data on its website.
But the state continues to be rocked by incidents such as the death of 5-year-old Phoebe Jonchuck, dropped from a bridge into Tampa Bay in January, or the murders last fall of six children by their grandfather in Gilchrist County.
Now, policymakers agree, it's time to examine the strengths and weaknesses of the new law, and go from there.
"We are on the right track," said Sen. Eleanor Sobel, chairwoman of the Senate Children, Families and Elder Affairs Committee. "We need to continue keeping a close watch to make sure that no child dies who could have been saved."
Rep. Gayle Harrell, who chairs the House Children, Families and Seniors Subcommittee, said her panel would propose "not quite a glitch bill, but there will be some missing pieces that we left out last year."
"Last session was a great first bite of the apple, because it really focused on the front end of the system," said Department of Children and Families Secretary Mike Carroll. "This year, I think you'll see the Legislature focus on the back end."
Additionally, under the new law, the child-welfare system has new resources coming into play.
For instance, the law created the Florida Institute for Child Welfare, to conduct policy research. It also created the Critical Incident Rapid Response Team, which investigated the killings in Tampa and Gilchrist County and, in the Tampa case, released a damning report.
As a result, Harrell's committee has reviewed the team's report on Phoebe Jonchuck's death.
“As we all know from reading that report, substance abuse, mental health and domestic violence were key drivers of what happened there,” she said.
Harrell's panel will hold a three-hour hearing on mental-health and substance-abuse issues next Wednesday. And Senate President Andy Gardiner has asked Sen. Rene Garcia, chairman of the chamber's budget committee for health and human services, to conduct a review of programs that provide behavioral health care.
At the same time, lawmakers are watching as the changes they made to the child-welfare system last year are still being put in place.
For instance, Carroll said, while the Legislature had funded 191 new child-protective investigators, only about 90 percent of those positions are filled. That's due to rapid turnover among frontline staff still a problem for policymakers.
And because of the law, Carroll said, more children are being removed from their homes, particularly in some areas where the removal rates have spiked.
"That's caused a strain on our ability to provide case-management services and make sure that we are really in these homes, supervising, and connecting these families to the necessary services," Carroll said.
As a result, lawmakers also will consider putting more money into the so-called "back end" of the child-welfare system the privatized community-based care agencies, which provide adoption, foster care and case-management services.
Currently, the case managers average 20 cases, according to Kurt Kelly, chief executive officer of the Florida Coalition for Children, which represents the community-based care agencies. They'd like to hire enough new case managers to get the average caseload down to 13.
Kelly said he was encouraged by improving relations between the Department of Children and Families and the community-based care agencies, which worked together to develop a legislative budget request that includes $15.7 million for case managers and $4.5 million for training.
Additionally, both Harrell and Sobel said they'll continue to scrutinize the role of the Child Abuse Death Review Committee, which reviews child deaths that are reported to the state abuse hotline.
But the biggest change wrought by the new law, Carroll said, is its tighter focus on child safety.
"This should all be about what's in the best interests of the child, and not what's best for the parent or anyone else," he said. "Now that's a cultural shift for us, so it's an ongoing process."