Another Good Week for Children at the Capitol

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If Dr. Seuss had written about Florida’s last committee week of 2017 in his classic grinchy tale, it probably would’ve sounded much like this:

Bills for relative caregivers, Early Steps and parents in jail,
trafficking, pay raises, civil citations and GAL,
all passed their committees, and then legislators with haste,
completed their work before session,
with no time to waste.

In other words, the final committee week was a relatively speedy and good week for policies benefiting Florida’s children.

Bills to Help Abused and Neglected Children Pass Unanimously

Policy makers heard multiple bills and presentations to improve outcomes for children who have suffered abuse and neglect. The Senate Children, Families and Elders Committee unanimously passed an amended SB 590 sponsored by Senator Garcia (R-Hialeah), which would improve the quality of care and services for children in the child welfare system in both relative and non-relative care homes. The sponsor significantly amended it to require all young children ages 0-36 months who are victims of abuse and neglect or are affected by substance abuse and withdrawal be referred to the Early Steps program. This change will address the damaging effects of abuse, neglect and substance abuse on vulnerable newborns and young children.

Many testifying and presenting focused on ensuring that foster care is not the first placement if alternatives are available. Judge Kimberly Todd, a unified family court judge of Pinellas and Pasco counties, stated, “We need to offer support to the caregivers and facilitate their relationship with the biological parent.” Several highly emotional testimonies by former and current relative caregivers, great-aunts and grandparents expressed frustration with the bureaucratic and financial obstacles to be overcome in addition to the lack of support and information received relating to custody and financial issues.

SB 522 regarding incarcerated parents, sponsored by Senator Bean (R-Jacksonville), passed unanimously. Rev. Garry Montgomery, founding pastor of Living Stones International Children and Families Social Services, praised the legislation stating, “It is so important for the children to stay connected with their parents.”

Increased Funding, Civil Citations and In-depth Look at the Juvenile Justice System

Civil citation, the process that allows youthful misdeeds to be addressed through community services or access to substance abuse services, was again before the Senate. SB 644 by Senator Bracy (D- Ocoee) would mandate the issuance of a citation for certain crimes.

There remains concern, however, as to whether this legislation is the best way to increase utilization of civil citations (which is rising statewide annually by 10 full percentage points or more). This bill, while looking to expand a good program, removes law enforcement officers’ discretion in their interactions with juveniles. This could lead to more dire consequences – law enforcement officers may have no other alternative than to charge juveniles with more serious offenses that require arrests, so they can be removed from potentially harmful situations or environments. The concern over limiting officer discretion was reflected by Barney Bishop from the Florida Smart Justice Alliance, as well as by committee Vice Chair Baxley (R-Lady Lake), who restated the need for legislators to work with law enforcement on refining the juvenile justice processes.

Juvenile justice was also the topic of discussion in the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Criminal and Civil Justice. The committee heard a presentation from Department of Juvenile Justice Secretary Christy Daly about increased proposed funding for a variety of programs while also highlighting recent successes of the department.

Highlights of the proposed increases include pay raises for juvenile detention and probation officers, funds to establish the Office of Youth and Family Advocacy to amplify the youth voice and engage families while the youth is in detainment and increasing juvenile residential capacity relating to restructuring residential programs.

Many of these funding requests came in the aftermath of the Miami Herald exposé about the conditions in juvenile residential facilities. The expose also sparked Miami-Dade State Attorney Katherine Fernández Rundle this week to convene a grand jury investigation.

Guardian ad Litem (GAL) Get Legislative Support

Three bills that support this organization that gives voice to children in the dependency process passed unanimously last week.

SB 146 sponsored by Senator Bean (R-Jacksonville), authorizes the payment of certain due process costs when a court-appointed pro bono attorney represents a dependent child with special needs. These costs include court reporting and transcriptions, expert witnesses, mental health professionals, reasonable pretrial consultation fees and certain travel expenses. This bill could increase the number of attorneys willing to take on these important pro bono cases.

House companion, HB 57 sponsored by Representative White (R-Pensacola), passed the House Justice Appropriations committee following support from GAL and Smart Justice.

SB 222, which removes the scheduled repeal date for the law governing the Guardian ad Litem Foundation, has only one more committee stop.

Expansion of Human Trafficking Education and Penalties for Traffickers Debated

Seeking additional ways to reduce the numbers of children and adults being trafficked in Florida, legislature heard and moved multiple bills expanding education about human trafficking and increasing the opportunities for victims to hold people accountable through the legal process.

SB 96, sponsored by Senator Steube (R-Sarasota), establishes curriculum in health education programs designed to inform children about the signs of human trafficking as well as ways in which victims may receive help and support. Jan Edwards of Paving the Way highlighted its importance by stating that 1 out of 5 children in the United States are at risk of being sexually exploited. In Florida that equates to approximately 552,000 children. The bill does not currently have a House companion, and requires two more committees to make it to the Senate floor.

Bills sponsored by longtime vocal supporter of human trafficking victims, Representative Spano (R-Riverview), continued their uncontested path through the House.

HB 167, which would create a new civil cause of action for a victim of human trafficking that may be brought against a trafficker or a person who knowingly or in willful blindness assists or enables a trafficker, has one more committee before moving to the House floor. The bill also should result in more hotel owners educating employees on how to identify and report human trafficking since it will be required for an affirmative defense.

HB 169 would establish a trust fund for victims of human trafficking in partnership with the Florida Department of Law Enforcement. The legislation also includes the establishment of educational programs directed towards informing the public of signs of human trafficking.

House Committee Responds to Technical Changes in Child Pornography

Reintroducing a measure that passed the House last Session, the House Criminal Justice Committee passed and submitted their proposed committee bill, CRJ1. The bill is filed as HB 7017, carried by Representative Sullivan (R-Eustis), and is written to give children extra protections from sexual exploitation. The measure prohibits created sexual images, allows for separate counts for computer transmission of child pornography, prohibits file sharing and reorganizes child exploitation laws.

Committee chair Representative Spano (R-Riverview) pledged to work hard to get Senate cooperation.

The committee also passed CRJ2, (now HB 7019), a conforming bill required by elements of HB 7017 and also relates to public record exemptions regarding videotaped statements of a minor.

 

 

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This Legislative Connection is brought to you by Amanda Ostrander, Sabrina Abboud, Courtney Reed, Karen Bonsignori, Roy Miller and Tiffany McGlinchey.

                                     

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Another Good Week for Children at the Capitol