SB 140, sponsored by Sen. Benacquisto (R-Ft. Myers), passed unanimously in its third and final reading on the Senate floor, and is now in messages to the House. The bill had such overwhelming support that 31 Senators signed on as co-sponsors of this exemplary legislation.
The House, however, was a different story. In a difficult-to-watch Judiciary committee meeting, some representatives raised concerns about the “true love” of 16-year-olds, the continued degradation of family, and questioned whether preventing pregnant teens to marry actually places them on the path to poverty as single mothers. They also questioned the accuracy of the overwhelming divorce statistics for teen marriages and expressed concerns over the ability of 18-year-olds entering the military to marry their significant other.
These concerns do not eliminate the vast negative consequences experienced by children who marry. Girls married under the age of 18 are three times more likely to suffer physical abuse by their spouse. Child marriage has also been linked to higher rates of dropping out of school, physical and mental health issues, isolation and abandonment.
The Children’s Campaign believes that children who desire to marry can wait until they are of age; it is marriage delayed not marriage denied. Delaying is no different than laws that require those who want to drink, vote or join the military to also wait. Issuing a legal document to marry two people, who would without it be committing a criminal act, is not protecting children or providing positive outcomes for the infant being born into unstable homes.
Unfortunately, the House Judiciary Committee voted to include exemptions into the clean bill, HB 335 by Rep. Nunez (R-Miami). The marriage “ban” as filed in the House now allows for children age 16 and 17 to marry providing they can prove one party is pregnant, have an affidavit affirming paternity and parental consent with a few exceptions. One interesting question raised valid criticism that having this exemption might encourage children who want to get married to purposely get pregnant, but it was brushed aside. The bill passed the committee with a vote of 17 to 2.
A bill sponsored by Sen. Hutson, SB 1520 (R-Palm Coast), was temporarily postponed in Senate Children, Families and Elders. This bill will remove current child care licensing exemptions for membership organizations that provide afterschool care for children ages 5 to 12 and are affiliated with national organizations. Its companion, HB 1129 by Rep. Cortes (R-Altamonte Springs), shares the goal of ensuring that the original legislative intent is upheld for all programs offering child care to operate under given guidelines and can be inspected by the Department of Children and Families to ensure the health and safety of the children left in their care.
In a hearing featuring heated debate, representatives in the House Children, Families and Seniors subcommittee voiced their support of Boys and Girls Clubs. However, the sponsor’s testimony of recent violations of health and safety standards found in those programs resulted in the bill passing bill by only a small margin. Opponents to the proposed legislation stated that these programs police themselves by abiding by their organization handbook, and that some of the requirements for child care licensure are costly and unnecessary.
This has been an ongoing battle between afterschool providers and policy makers about the level of oversight needed for programs that serve elementary age children. Legislation has been filed, rules have been debated and the original legislative intent remained clear until recently. Speaking before the committee, Bill Sponsor Rep. Cortes spoke of the change in the reading of the law by DCF in 2017 and questioned if the Department had the authority to make a call that differed from the legislative intent. SB 1520 is scheduled to be heard in Senate Children, Families and Elder Affairs on Feb 6th at 9am in room 401S.
SB 260, filed by Sen. Book (D-Plantation), protects students with disabilities by limiting the use of physical restraint and seclusion practices in public schools to only the most necessary cases. Further training and stricter guidelines for these practices will reduce the frequency of their use and keep vulnerable children safer from harm. While its companion, HB 63 by Rep. Edwards (D- Sunrise), is already on the House floor, SB 260 is being heard in its first committee of reference, Senate Education at 9:00 A.M. on Tuesday, February 6th. Readers are encouraged to go to The Children’s Campaign’s Take Action Center to support this important legislation.
SB 146, Appointment of Attorneys for Dependent Children with Special Needs by Sen. Bean (R-Jacksonville), passed its third and final reading on the Senate Floor on 1/31. The bill will allow for disabled children to receive adequate assistance and open opportunities for more lawyers to offer their work pro bono. Bean’s bill has been praised for its potential savings for the state, as it could save the state millions in hiring attorneys for these cases. Its companion, HB 57 by Rep. White (R-Pensacola) and Williams (D-Fort Lauderdale) has been postponed on its second reading and is awaiting rescheduling.
A bill that would allow certain authorized persons to visit Department of Juvenile Justice and county-run juvenile residential facilities, HB 361 by Rep. Richard (D-Miami Beach) and Stafford (D-Opa Locka), passed with an amendment. The amendment closely aligned the bill with its companion, SB 1004 by Sen. Brandes (R-St. Petersburg). HB 361 is now waiting to be calendared in the House Judiciary Committee.
SB 1442 by Sen.Book (D-Sunrise), passed its first committee. This bill creates Early Childhood Courts, which focus on child welfare cases involving children typically under the age of three with the goal of improving child safety and well-being, healing trauma and repairing the parent-child relationship, expediting permanency, preventing recurrence of maltreatment, and stopping the intergenerational cycle of abuse/neglect/violence. Its companion, HB 1351 by Rep. Payne (R-Palatka), is waiting to be calendared in the House Appropriations Committee while SB 1442 will next be heard in the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Criminal and Civil Justice.
A bill that attempts to shorten the process of identifying prospective biological parents for children in the child welfare system, so they can achieve permanency faster, HB 505 by Rep. Roth (R-Palm Beach Gardens), passed its second committee of reference. The bill was amended to address some potential unintended consequences in the original version. The Senate bill’s sponsor as well as the Guardian Ad Litem program have also expressed their commitment to adjusting the bill to keep the focus on helping children find permanent homes without penalizing unmarried biological fathers who want to be part of their children’s lives. SB 774 by Sen. Bean (R-Jacksonville) and HB 505 are now in the Judiciary Committees of their respective chambers.
HB 1435, sponsored by Rep. Perez (R-Miami), was amended to remove the proposed Kinship Caregiver Program and to clarify that the new “family finding” program will start once a child is in custody of the department rather than once the child becomes known to the Department. The requirement that all children 0-36 months who are substantiated victims of abuse or neglect or affected by substance abuse or withdrawal be referred to Early Steps was also removed. This differs from its companion, SB 590 by Sen. Garcia (R-Hialeah), which has been scheduled to be heard in Senate Judiciary on February 6th at 2:00 pm in 110 S. HB 1435 will be heard next in the House Health Care Appropriations Subcommittee.
A bill that involves eligible incarcerated parents in case plans for children in the child welfare system, HB 281, by Rep. Williams (D-Fort Lauderdale) and Daniels (D-Jacksonville), passed the House unanimously. The bill expands opportunities for family reunification that will strengthen the parent/child bond. Its companion, SB 522 by Sen. Bean (R- Jacksonville), is awaiting its second reading in the Senate.
HB 167 by Rep. Spano (R-Riverview) has been temporarily postponed by the House Judiciary Committee following the filing of an amendment that would not allow a cause of action detailed in the bill, filed by victims of human trafficking, to be brought against public lodging and public food service establishments. HB 487, which allows treatment centers to prioritize the delivery of services to meet the needs of child victims of commercial sexual exploitation, will be heard for the first time on the House floor on Wednesday, February 7th.
A bill that would give oversight of the Child Protective Investigations in Walton County to the Sheriff’s Department, SB 846 by Sen. Gainer (R-Panama City,) is scheduled to heard in the Children, Families and Elder Affairs Committee on February 6th at 9:00 am in room 401 S.
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This Legislative Connection is brought to you by Amanda Ostrander, Courtney Reed, Lauren Pentrack, LeOndra Strowbridge, Karen Bonsignori, Roy Miller and Tiffany McGlinchey.