Lobbyists and administrators affiliated with two national organizations headquartered outside of Florida bussed in employees and direct service supervisors to speak against the oversight and licensing of afterschool programs. The arguments mirrored those used and rejected in other states.
SB 1520 would have extended standards, licensing and inspection to all afterschool programs serving school age children from ages 5-12. The cries against from the Boys & Girls Club and Girls, Inc. resulted in the bill being withdrawn. It likely would have failed on a 2-2 vote.
Although it is understandable that responsible parents would believe that programs that receive millions of state funds would be tightly overseen by the state – this is not true.
In testimony before the committee it was learned that chapters of the Boys & Girls Clubs had many inspection failures, ranging from a van full of children driven by an employee without a valid driver’s license, vans not equipped with age-appropriate safety belts, glass and nails on playgrounds, staff overseeing children without training and failure to have completed the mandated staff background screenings.
In some cases, even a negative inspection did not result in fixes. The same problems were found in a re-inspection three months later.
One of the arguments raised by the bill’s opponents is that affiliations with national organizations establish standards to be met and don’t require Florida involvement. However, as was uncovered, these standards are not being met consistently and visits from national accreditors are infrequent.
The Children’s Campaign’s President Roy Miller testified before the committee, urging them to focus on the safety of the children, stating, “I don’t know when this conversation devolved from protecting children to an up or down vote on one particular organization.”
That sentiment was echoed by Janet Mabry, a lobbyist, who stated she was speaking as a mother and grandmother. She brought up the historical opposition that afterschool programs have raised when stricter safety measures were enacted by policy makers: “we tried to get simple fingerprinting for their [member organizations] employees under the Department of Children and Families. We heard the exact same arguments…I think that your constituents believe they [member organizations] are licensed, I think they believe the state is watching over them.”
Senator Broxson (R-Pensacola) expressed concerns about the opposition to standards: “… we are giving you money from the people of the state, they expect accountability.”
Committee Chairman, Senator Garcia (R-Hialeah) also expressed his concern with the lobbyist’s justification of lower safety standards in place for underserved communities. “I thank you for the work that you do. But when we hear comments like ‘because it is in an underserved community, we can’t find a facility, that means that these children deserve less? I don’t think so.”
In obvious frustration, the bill sponsor Sen. Hutson (R-Palm Coast) vowed to return next session.
The focus of the debate will now shift to the other chamber. HB 1229 sponsored by Rep. Bob Cortes (R-Altamonte Springs) is expected to be heard in the House Health Care Appropriations Subcommittee.
The organization’s Direct Support bill, HB 6021 by Representative Stevenson (R-St. Augustine) has passed the House and the Senate and will be on its way to the Governor for his signature.
Along with its companion bill SB 222 by Senator Bean (R-Jacksonville), which was laid on the table, HB 6021 deletes the automatic repeal provision that would have expired the program’s GAL Foundation on October 1, 2018. The GAL Foundation, which accepts grants and donations from private donors, is an important partner for the GAL Program in furthering its mission.
The organization has also been working closely on the proposed Appointment of Attorneys for Dependent Children with Special Needs legislation. SB 146 by Senator Bean and HB 57 Rep. White (R-Pensacola) attempts to rectify the current statute that requires the appointment of an attorney for certain children with special needs but only allows for reimbursement of case-related due process costs of Special Needs Registry attorneys, and not for attorneys willing to serve for free. SB 146 unanimously passed the full Senate and has been sent to the House in messages.
Additionally, the GAL Program is championing specific budgetary proposals. Crucial to the program are funds that will enable GAL’s to stay on cases when a child is placed outside his circuit. Due to increases in the number of children in out-of-home care, more children are being placed outside their home circuits. The GAL Program has requested approximately $330,000 in recurring revenue to reimburse volunteers for extraordinary or hardship travel expenses. More will be known about the fate of that request as budget conferences are scheduled.
A bill that will make schools safer for children with disabilities, SB 260 by Senator Book (D-Plantation), unanimously passed its first committee, Education. In a stirring presentation on the impact of the bill, and the offered strike all amendment, Senator Book asked committee members to imagine they were a four-year-old who was having the same type of day of the main character of the beloved elementary school book by Judith Viorst, Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good Very Bad Day. She asked them to imagine that they were having that day while being unable to speak and facing cognitive delays, so they acted out to express their feelings about their very bad day. She then walked them through the current law, asking them to imagine being locked in a room alone or mechanically restrained and unable to catch your breath due to the restraint. This example could have happened in any part of the state. According to Senator Book’s presentation, pre-k through third grade students with disabilities had the highest rates of restraint and seclusion, making up 49% of all reported incidents in 2016-17. The bill will be heard in Health Policy on 2/13 at 10 a.m. Companion bill, HB 63 by Representative Edwards-Walpole (D-Sunrise) has been placed on second reading in the House. To encourage the members of Senate Health Policy to support this bill, visit The Children’s Campaign’s Take Action Center.
SB 846 by Senator Gainer (R-Panama City) would move the responsibility for Child Protective Investigations from the Department of Children and Families to the Walton County Sheriff’s Office was heard in the Senate Children, Families and Elder Affairs Committee. In a quick presentation with support by The Children’s Campaign voiced for the Walton County Sheriff, the bill passed unanimously. The bill’s second stop is in the Appropriations Subcommittee on Health and Human Service. Companion bill HB 1005, by Representative Roth (R-Palm Beach Gardens), is also awaiting scheduling in its second committee of reference, House Health Care Appropriations Subcommittee.
The Senate Judiciary Committee heard and passed SB 590 by Senator Garcia (R-Hialeah). The bill will implement Family Finding Programs that will improve the ability to find relative and non-relative caregivers for abused and neglected children in out-of-home care. It will also ensure that those who want to care for children are not dissuaded due to concerns about finances. The bill will remove the current delay and start payments upon the child entering the caregiver’s home. Also, the bill requires that children under the age of five who are victims of abuse and neglect are referred to the appropriate program for early intervention screening. Concerns were raised about the fiscal impact from the Florida Coalition for Children. The bill will next be heard in the Appropriations Subcommittee on Health and Human Service. Although it has been amended to remove some of the key components in SB 590, similar bill HB 1435 by Representative Perez (R-Miami) is waiting to be scheduled in the House Health Care Appropriations Subcommittee.
SB 1552 sponsored by Sen. Bracy (D-Ocoee) will change the minimum age a juvenile would qualify to be moved to adult court. The bill also requires: the courts view a pre-disposition report before entering a child in to a juvenile prison, prolific offenders who commit five different offenses be placed in secure detention to ensure they do not reoffend, and annual reporting on juveniles who are prosecuted as adults. In debate, Sen. Bean (R-Jacksonville) raised questions on the increased age limit and if the change would remove power from law enforcement. Sen. Bracy explained that when a child goes to adult court it becomes difficult to rehabilitate them. In his testimony, Scott McCoy, Senior Policy Counsel with the Southern Poverty Law Center, expressed concern over the fact that roughly 98% of Florida children are being transferred to the adult system through the direct file process. He supports the minimum age change because instead of putting an 8th grader on trial as an adult, local communities can make the decision through indictment or a juvenile court judge can make the decision to transfer through a judicial waiver. The bill will next be heard in the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Criminal and Civil Justice.
HB 335 / SB 140, The Minor Marriage Act sponsored by Benacquisto (R-Naples) and passed unanimously in the Senate is expected to be taken up on the House floor this week. Rep. Nunez (R-Miami) has filed a “strike-all” amendment which adds a loophole for pregnant girls 16 years of age or above to marry if meeting certain conditions. The original Senate bill is an outright ban on child marriage.
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This Legislative Connection is brought to you by Amanda Ostrander, Rachael Curtin, LeOndra Strowbridge, Karen Bonsignori, Roy Miller and Tiffany McGlinchey.