Tallahassee, similar to the rest of the country, is mired in a fog of sexual harassment allegations involving high-ranking members of both political parties. Combining this fallout with allegations of surveillance on Florida policy makers plus the start of political ads for the 2019 election cycle ratchets up the already tense environment at the capitol.
Regardless, the work of the state continues. Following last week’s meetings, one committee week remains before the start of the 2018 Legislative Session in January.
Milestones were reached as the Governor released his budget recommendations, bills passed second committee stops and presentations were heard on issues likely to become committee bills or funding priorities.
Governor Rick Scott unveiled his $87 billion policy & budget recommendations for fiscal year 2018-19 titled “Securing Florida’s Future Recommended Budget.” Although the document is billed as a template for legislators in the budget creation process, some news organizations dubbed it as more of a showcase of political aspiration.
Here are a few highlights as recommended for children’s priorities and programs:
- $2 million in new funding for human trafficking services, expanding in-home treatment through community wraparound service teams, specialized therapeutic foster care and emergency beds.
- $2 million new dollars and 57 new positions for the Department of Children and Families, which is $152 million less than DCF requested.
- Due to realignment of dollars, a $10 million increase to provide 130 positions to address child protection retention and workload issues.
- $23 million new dollars and 3 new positions for the Department of Juvenile Justice (DJJ), bringing the DJJ budget to $593 million. In contrast, the Department of Corrections (DOC) is recommended to receive an additional $156 million, cranking up the DOC budget to $2.6 billion (about 400% larger than DJJ).
- $317,000 and three positions to establish the Office of Youth and Family Advocacy, newly established to provide an avenue for youth and families to raise concerns and engage directly with upper level administrators.
- $6 million to address DJJ workforce issues including: $3.9 million for retention of juvenile detention officers and $1.7 million for retention of juvenile probation officers.
- The current level of funding for the Child Health Insurance Program (CHIP) is continued, although the program has not yet been reauthorized by the United States Congress. The FAQ release from the Governor’s office states that it “…expects Congress to reauthorize funding for this program that serves low-income children.”
Guardian ad Litem:
- $914,000 new dollars for the Guardian ad Litem (GAL) program, for a total of nearly $51 million. This is $1.4 million less than requested by GAL. Requests from the agency NOT included in the Governor’s recommendations include funding for Baby Court (0-3) or reimbursement for extraordinary Guardian expenses. In his presentation to the Appropriations Subcommittee on Criminal and Civil Justice, the Executive Director of the Statewide GAL Office, Alan Abromowitz, stated that 2/3rds of babies involved in court return to their families and very few come back into care.
- $31 million new dollars for early learning.
- An additional $11.6 million for the Voluntary Prekindergarten (VPK) program, including a $50 increase per student for the school year ($2,487 per student) and a $43 increase per student for the summer program ($2,123 per student).
- An increase of $7 million in federal funding for more than 1,200 additional children in School Readiness programs.
The issue of child marriage was in the spotlight again last week, as the legislature heard and debated legislation seeking to ban the practice in the state. SB 140, filed by Senator Lizbeth Benacquisto (R- Lee County), passed unanimously out of the Children, Families and Elder Affairs Committee on Monday with some senators questioning how the bill would impact emancipated children.
In Florida, emancipated minors can’t drive or leave school before age 16, vote before age 18 or purchase an adult beverage before age 21. Although emancipated minors may be looked at legally as age 18, the state still protects them from activities proven detrimental if done too early.
Children who marry face a host of negative outcomes. Girls 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 and isolation and abandonment by the spouse. Those that marry as children are more likely than their peers to live in poverty in adulthood.
The Coalition to Ban Child Marriage strongly urges that emancipated minors NOT be excluded from the ban.
The bill’s final Senate stop is the Rules committee. The House companion, HB 335 sponsored by Representative Nunez (R-Miami), is awaiting scheduling in the Judiciary committee.
Department of Children and Families (DCF) Secretary Mike Carroll presented to both the House Health Care Appropriations Subcommittee and the Senate Children, Families and Elder Affairs Committee on issues related to child welfare.
Speaking about the Child Protective Investigator (CPI) workforce, Carroll stated that the top issue is turnover. CPIs have little time off and are always on call, resulting in erratic and stressful schedules. Survey results show many struggle with heavy workloads and feel unsupported. Secretary Carroll also discussed a pilot project in Tallahassee that will allow CPI’s to respond to reports to the Child Abuse Hotline in “alternative ways” without launching a full investigation. The hope is that this will reduce workload and demands on CPIs’ schedules.
In the Senate Children, Families and Elders Committee, Secretary Carroll discussed Florida’s IV-E waiver, which provides a federal block grant to fund child welfare services and is due to expire in 2019. If not reauthorized, DCF will have to resort to old ways of drawing down funding. This old formula provides more money for out-of-home placements, which incentivizes the removal of children from their homes, rather than providing the state flexibility to best serve children and families on a case-by-case basis. Describing the urgency to reauthorize, Carroll stated, “we absolutely do not want to go back to that.” Chair Rene Garcia (R- Hialeah) addressed the committee saying that they may need to “pressure Washington to continue to fund this important initiative.”
The House Children, Families and Seniors Subcommittee dedicated an entire meeting to the issue of human trafficking, specifically how it impacts Florida’s children. The committee heard from multiple researchers and service providers including the Department of Children and Families (DCF). The meeting clearly illustrated that although current data and information on the issue is limited, it’s clear that children often experience multiple traumas prior to exploitation. This exacerbates the already pressing need for a wider array of specialized services to ensure these children receive individualized care in the appropriate environment.
Bethany Gilot, DCF statewide human trafficking prevention director, provided an update, stating that the past few years have shown promising signs of increased awareness and knowledge about human trafficking, as well as higher levels of reporting.
Yet, challenges persist with finding appropriate safe houses and services for victims. Gilot expressed concern regarding the low number of beds in safe houses. Funding for this particular need is especially challenging given that commercial sexually exploited children already require expanded mental health services. She also clarified that although the number of verified cases is increasing, the needs of each victim is unique, making it difficult to prescribe the number of safe house beds needed throughout the state.
Cate Stoltzfus, legislative policy analyst for the Office of Program Policy Analysis and Government Accountability (OPPAGA), recommended that DCF agencies be more proactive in the development of new placements to meet the specialized needs of commercially sexually exploited (CSE) children.
The Citrus Health Network presented on Citrus Helping Adolescents Negatively Impacted by Commercial Exploitation (CHANCE) program. This program assigns CSE children to therapists who stay with them through any movement so that full evaluation can be implemented. Providing survivor life coaches to the 60 CHANCE clients, the program has seen significant improvement in educational attainment, school behavior and reduction of runaway behavior.
Last week, the U.S. House Ways and Means Committee approved an amendment to the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act that would give all qualifying 501(c)(3) nonprofits a partial exemption from the current prohibition on partisan political intervention. This would allow nonprofits to endorse candidates for office so long as the expenditures related to this endorsement are deemed insignificant or minor. However, the amendment’s language is vague, leaving room for organizations to exploit legal loopholes.
This major change could affect the public’s confidence in nonprofit organizations, and damage the ability of nonprofits to raise critical funds necessary to continuing their work. The change to the Internal Revenue Code would go into effect in 2019, and could have a long-lasting impact on charitable giving and the communities being served by nonprofits.
Contact your United States House Representative and urge them to vote NO on the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act (H.R. 1).
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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.