Tragedies Rock State – Mental Health and Substance Abuse At Play Again

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In Orlando, a mother is accused of taking the life of her three children. Five-month-old Christopher and six-year-old Philip were strangled to death and seven-year-old Laci strangled and drowned. All had cuts on their bodies. Jessica McCarty, the mother, was found on the lawn of her home by police following a failed attempt to take her own life.

iStock_000013261322_LargeMcCarty has a history of drug abuse, including law enforcement involvement.  In 2009, following a suicide attempt, a child abuse investigator believed the children faced immediate danger and inadequate supervision, but noted their father and grandmother seemed like capable caregivers. The family was given a brochure, asked to sign a safety plan and McCarty was referred to mental health services, according to a Department of Children and Families (DCF) spokeswoman. The case was closed without additional follow-up.

In New Port Richey, Jason Rios is accused of using a tire iron to beat to death two victims, his niece, nine-year-old Jenica Randazzo, and her frail grandmother. Rios, who had suffered for years with mental illness also delivered a brutal beating to Jenica’s seven-year-old sister. Jenica and her siblings were in the care of their grandparents, due in most part to her mother’s drug addiction. The grandmother was a double amputee in frail condition, placing the burden of caring for four grandchildren and the mentally ill son on the grandfather, Ernesto Rios.iStock_000008343256_Large

Prior to his arrest, Jason Rios attempted to take his own life with a power drill. The Pasco County Sheriff’s Department has labeled him a paranoid schizophrenic. Although family members had known about his mental illness, and he was involuntarily committed three times, they never informed child welfare workers.  In addition, questions about his mental health were never asked because, although he was living in the house, he was not petitioning to adopt.

In both cases, a Critical Incident Rapid Response Team report (CIRRT) will not be mandated –missing potential opportunities to analyze where the system is failing and protect other children in similar situations.

Mental health and substance abuse are recurring problems in the child welfare system. Of the 477 cases reviewed by the Miami Herald last year in which a child died after interaction with DCF, 322, or 68 percent, had a “clear indication of parental substance abuse.” Of the child deaths with mandated CIRRT reports for 2015, at least 50% have indications of mental health or substance abuse issues. The Casey Family Programs review of child fatalities named parental substance abuse and chronic mental health problems as two of the three common characteristics of families of children who died due to suspected maltreatment.

Immediate access to intensive and comprehensive substance abuse and mental health treatment designed specifically for families in the child welfare system is often not readily available.

iStock_000027515315_LargeThe House Subcommittee on Children, Families & Seniors acknowledged that mental health and substance abuse is a multilayered system that needs surgery rather than repeated Band-Aids.  HB 7119 is an attempted overhaul and calls for a number of changes:  adding Crisis Stabilization Units, performance measures for ME’s (Managing Entities), and better access to care for individuals and families. The bill implements a statewide safety net for substance abuse and mental health (SAMH) prevention. It serves children and adults who are otherwise unable to obtain these services (such as individuals who are not covered under Medicaid or private insurance and do not have the financial ability to pay for the services).  It passed out of committee this week.

University Report Questions Early Learning Quality

The alleged gubernatorial ban onrsz_istock_000002018726large “climate change” and “global warming” has the rest of country looking at Florida with wry smiles.   The Children’s Campaign wonders if the state is following the mantra of the willfully uninformed – “if you don’t say it out loud then it doesn’t exist.”

Following this same “reasoning,” if we don’t say that the state’s early learning opportunities are predominantly low quality, will all Florida’s five-year-olds be prepared to start school with a solid foundation?

It seems that the University of Florida did not get the memo.

In a recent commissioned report, The University of Florida found that “Florida has an overabundance of early learning slots, most of which are not of the quality needed to prepare children for success in school.”

This appears to be a distinctly different message than the one being delivered by too many of the state’s early learning experts and spokespeople.  We’ve heard them say that “the current early learning system in Florida is something we can all be proud of,” and the investment by the Governor “demonstrates his commitment to early learning,” or that they have “seen more progress on the horizon than…ever…before.”

iStock_000025658747_LargeWhen the input from national experts is factored in, the picture changes. The National Institute of Early Education Research (NIEER) only awards Florida 3 out of 10 quality pre-kindergarten standards, Education Week ranked the state 32nd in probability of success based on the current program and, based on the amount of combined federal, state and local money spent per preschool student, Florida ranked 37th.

Suddenly, the UF findings are not that surprising.

The report states, “Florida could redirect its existing investments –and likely save precious public education funding later – by raising minimum standards for programs funded by the school readiness initiative.”

Banning the phrases “climate change” and “global warming” will not make much impact on actual climate change/global warming outcomes; conversely, maybe talking more candidly about early learning will make a difference for Florida’s children.

And here’s a new mantra to follow: quality is more important than quantity.

Juvenile Justice Update

A lot of action is taking place under the juvenile justice umbrella.

Supreme Court:

The U.S. Supreme Court has agreed to hear a case thatcapitol would clarify if its 2012 decision ending mandatory juvenile life sentences without parole could be applied retroactively.

The court’s ruling in Miller found that these long-term sentences, when applied to minors, amounted to cruel and unusual punishment. The ruling was based in part on brain-development, and that the portion of the brain that controls impulse is not fully developed in juveniles. This leads them to be more likely to succumb to peer pressure and less likely to consider long-term consequences. It is estimated that 59% of juveniles who were sentenced to life without parole were convicted of no prior offenses.

This follows the recent Florida Supreme Court ruling that the U.S. Supreme Court decision should be applied retroactively to all individuals in Florida serving mandatory life without parole sentences for offenses committed as juveniles.  Florida became the 10th state in the nation to make that distinction.

The Juvenile Law Center says that there are approximately 2,100 people serving mandatory juvenile life without parole sentences nationwide. The U.S. Supreme Court case will be decided in the Court’s 2015-2016 term.

Confidentiality and Expungement of Juvenile Records:

juvenile recordJuvenile records and expunction bills championed by The Children’s Campaign are receiving attention in both chambers.

Proposed committee bills passed by the House Criminal Justice Subcommittee have been filed and received bill numbers. Formerly (PCB) CRJS 15-04 dealing with Juvenile Criminal History Records has become HB 7103, 1505 dealing with Expunging and Sealing Criminal History Records is now HB 7105, and 15-06 dealing with Expunging and Sealing Criminal History Records has become HB 7107.

HB 7105 is calendared for House Justice Appropriations at 12:30 p.m. on Monday, March 30th.

SB 488, by Sen. Detert (R- Venice), passed the Criminal Justice Committee following an amendment by Sen. Bradley (R-Orange Park) that conformed the bill to HB 7105. The bill, among other important improvements, requires all criminal history records with certain exceptions to be automatically expunged when the minor reaches the age of 21 years (current law is 24 years of age).  Florida Smart Justice, Florida Public Defenders Association, PACE Center for Girls, and the James Madison Institute waived in support. The next referenced committee is Criminal and Civil Justice Appropriations Subcommittee.

SB 1316 by Sen. Soto (D- Kissimmee) is calendared for the Criminal Justice Committee on March 30th at 4:00pm in room 37 S. Sen. Clemens (D-Lake Worth) has offered a “strike all” amendment that would conform the bill to HB 7103 and addresses a technical issue not included in the House version – FDLE matching fingerprints during the expunction process.

Kids in Adult Courts:

SB 1082 by Sen. Altman (R- Cape Canaveral) passed the Criminal Justice Committee. The bill as amended conforms to Rep. Edwards (D-Sunrise) HB 783 and prohibits certain juvenile offenders from being transferred to adult court and deletes provisions relating to sentencing of juveniles as adults for certain offenses.

An informative related article authored by Deborrah Brodsky appeared in The Journal of The James Madison Institute.  Read the full article here. 

Child Welfare Update in the WorksiStock_000000575480_Large

The House Children, Families and Seniors Subcommittee unanimously approved HB 7121 on Tuesday, aimed at addressing issues with implementation and strengthening SB 1666, the child welfare overhaul from the previous year.

HB 7121 revises the duties of CIRRT teams in cases of child deaths as well as the duties and purpose of Child Abuse Death Reviews (CADR). The bill clarifies the roles of the two types of committees within the CADR process and imposes specific reporting requirements, while permitting the Secretary of DCF to deploy CIRRTs in response to other child deaths in addition to those with verified abuse and neglect in the last twelve months.

The measure, championed by chair of the committee, Rep. Gayle Harrell (R- Stuart), also implements requirements for community-based care lead agencies (CBCs) to provide trauma-informed services. As noted in the bills’ staff analysis, “untreated child trauma is a root cause of many of the most pressing problems that communities face, including poverty, crime, low academic achievement, addiction, mental health problems and poor health outcomes.” The bill does not include a definition of “trauma-informed” services.

Early Steps Receives Advocacy Scrutiny

iStock_000023205384_LargeThe Children’s Lobby raised questions about the cuts facing Early Steps, the program providing early intervention to newborns and children through age three with special healthcare needs.

“Early Steps Cuts Raise Serious Questions” – released earlier this week – details the timeline of budget cuts facing the program that screened 43,788 children in fiscal year 2013-14 and provided services to 27,265 children and their families.

The Lobby brings attention to the changing story regarding Early Steps budget cuts over the course of two short months, which ultimately led to the reduction of 15 staff members in the statewide service office, leaving only seven staff positions overseeing the entire program.

The article concluded by stressing questions about the impact of staffing cuts on the program’s timeliness of services and what it says about Florida’s commitment to the state’s youngest children with special needs.

Other Legislation…

school busSB 180, sponsored by Sen. Evers (R-Pensacola), authorizing school superintendents to allow “school safety designees” to carry a concealed firearm on school property with the approval of the school board, passed the Criminal Justice Committee with a vote of 3-2. During testimony, Barbara Kirby Bentley- a teacher from Seminole County stated, “If you put guns on campus, there’s another opportunity for the loss of life.” Similar bill, HB 19, is waiting to be scheduled in the House Judiciary committee.

A bill that would expand the definition of “missing endangered person” to include “a missing person with special needs who is at risk of becoming lost or is prone to wander due to autism spectrum disorder, a developmental disability, or any other disease or condition,” passed the Senate Judiciary committee with a vote of 10-0. SB 330 sponsored by Senator Dean (R- Inverness) is moving on to the Children, Families, and Elder Affairs. Identical bill, HB 69 is moving on to the Justice Appropriations Subcommittee.

SB 476 sponsored by Sen. Grimsley (R- Sebring) passed the Health Policy Committee. The bill would “authorize a psychiatric nurse performing within the framework of an established protocol with a psychiatrist to examine a patient in a receiving facility and approve release of a patient from a receiving facility if the receiving facility is owned and operated by a hospital or a health system.”  It had multiple organizations including AARP, The Florida Public Defenders Association, The Florida Nurse Practitioner Network and The Children’s Campaign waive in support.



This Legislative Connection brought to you by Amanda Ostrander, Rajkumari Sukhnandan, Meghan Cottrell, Rosie Richeson, Melissa Becker, Karen Bonsignori and Roy Miller

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Tragedies Rock State – Mental Health and Substance Abuse At Play Again