While many posts on digital platforms made fun of the month of January for seemingly lasting thousands of days, February is certainly flying by – with the end of Session drawing rapidly closer. Bills that are moving still have a chance to make it to the finish line, but the window of opportunity is closing.

Bills that don’t have a companion in the opposite chamber rarely are passed; those that haven’t made it through at least two of their committees of reference and any that have hit a roadblock, such as a committee chair refusing to agenda the issue, have exceedingly tall hurdles to overcome. Discussions in Tallahassee are switching to appropriations. Once the focus is on the two sides coming to an agreement on how the state is going to spend its money, substantive bills that could change policy struggle to get attention or time on the final Appropriations and/or Rules committees calendar. 

Child welfare reforms still are commanding a large share of lawmakers’ attention. As mentioned in our last Capitol Report, lawmakers are attuned to system problems that have been making headlines, and strong future leaders have taken these issues on as their own. They discussed Child Protective Investigator turnover and training issues, and reviewed the budget request from the Department of Children and Families. One expert testimony since our last publication provided concrete information that debunked most of the chatter about locking up foster care children, an option touted by a now much criticized report originating in Hillsborough County (Tampa).

Robert Latham, Associate Director of the University of Miami Law School Children & Youth Law Clinic, presented information from his report A Data Study on Foster Children Who Refused Placement in Hillsborough County, to the Senate Children, Family and Elder Affairs Committee.

His presentation focused on the outcomes and results of foster children in Hillsborough County that have refused placement. The report focused on these children, who are disproportionately non-white and have an average of 21 placements prior to refusing their first placement. In August 2019, an ad hoc committee of the Juvenile Justice Board in Hillsborough released a report regarding “hard to place” children as the source of that placement instability. The committee concluded that children “should not have the ability to refuse temporary placement that has been determined to be in their best interest” and recommended that children who refused placement could be confined against their will in secure facilities.

The use of the term “hard to place” implies that the blame for children being moved from home to home was somehow on the child that refused placement. According to Latham’s report, this is false. He believes Hillsborough’s placement refusals are a symptom of placement instability that was already present, but not the cause of it.

Children who refused placements were not any more seriously involved in the delinquency system than any other unstable kids in foster care, but they did appear to have higher levels of mental health needs. In fact, the data shows that after their first placement refusal, the children were slightly more stable due to increased efforts by caseworkers to find them therapeutic placements. Latham reported to the committee that the refusal episodes put into motion a therapeutic response that should have previously been utilized due to the number of placements.  

Latham concluded that the burden should not be on children to accept over 20 placement failures or risk civil commitment, but rather on the providers to ensure children never get to that level of instability. His research found 131 high unstable children in Hillsborough. Many of them had more than 50 placements, yet only 38 had ever refused a placement.

Children’s Bills on the Move

Although public systems of care will benefit from their implementation, no bills this year as they are currently written appear to reach the metric of “sweeping reforms.” More than likely their content is more administration related. Below are updates on some of the key bills tracked by American Children’s Campaign: 

Child Welfare: 

Future Senate President, Sen. Wilton Simpson (R-Spring Hill) filed SB 1324 late in session. His stated two goals for the bill are to remove bureaucratic roadblocks for those wanting to become foster parents and to move children to permanency quicker through family reunification or adoption. It would require a strong relationship between biological and foster parents, which could create a time and resource burden for foster parents, and may signify a need to shift towards professional foster parents.

The bill is also full of provisions for dependency and early childhood courts, as well as for increasing communication between the courts and the Department of Children and Families. It would require training and education for dependency court judges and establishes early childhood courts that function in the best interests of the child according to evidence-based practices and research. There isn’t an exact companion bill in the House, but HB 1105 by Representative Tomkow (R-Polk City) focuses on stability and permanency for children. It would require education and training for dependency court judges on the importance of stability and permanency for children, and allow them to utilize this knowledge when making placement decisions. HB 1105 focuses more on revisions to dependency courts, including allowing for more open communication between the Department of Children and Families (DCF) and judges so the best interests of the child is the priority in making placement decisions. SB 1324 has passed its final committees of reference and HB 1105 is on 2nd reading in the House.  

Cited as the “DCF Accountability Act,” SB 1326 creates the Office of Quality Assurance within the Department of Children and Families. The bill, sponsored by Senator Simpson (R-Spring Hill), also works to reduce turnover for child welfare workers by decreasing worker-to-child ratios and allows the timeframe for an investigation to be extended within reason. Under the provisions of this bill, community-based care (CBC) providers will be held accountable with the implementation of a grading system. Representative Ponder (R-Destin) has a similar bill moving through the House, HB 7063

Like Simpson’s bill, HB 7063 works to improve the career experience of Child Protective Investigators (CPI’s) by implementing programs and training that reduce turnover and mitigate stress from the job, as well as expand the career ladder. The bill also calls for the Florida Institute for Child Welfare to consult on professional developments child welfare workers. SB 1326 was temporarily postponed by Appropriations and HB 7063 is waiting to be heard in its final committee of reference.

SB 122 by Senator Rouson (D-St. Petersburg) and HB 43 by Representative Latvala (R-Clearwater) would require training in recognizing and treating head/brain injuries in children and set requirements for communication between law enforcement and DCF. Introduced last session, these bills were filed following the tragic death of Jordan Belliveau. Jordan had been placed in and out of care with his mother and father, both seemingly unfit to provide a safe home. After multiple interactions with law enforcement and DCF, Jordan ended up in the custody of his mother. Safety plan requirements and check ins with her case worker were missed. Tragically, at just two years old, Jordan ended up dying in his mother’s care.  

HB 43 and SB 122 also allows for law enforcement to have knowledge of open child abuse and neglect investigations. Some provisions of the bill have already been implemented by the state’s Guardian ad Litem (GAL) program. During HB 43’s stop in the House Appropriations Subcommittee, Representative Latvala praised the GAL program and recognized how they have already instituted brain and head trauma training for their guardians. The House bill is moving swiftly, passing the House unanimously while the Senate bill is scheduled to be heard in the Appropriations Subcommittee on Health and Human Services on 2/25 at 1:00pm in room 412K.

Bills that would offer adoption benefits to veterans and state employees, HB 61 by Representative Roth (R-Palm Beach Gardens) and SB 136 by Senator Bean (R-Jacksonville), are moving along easily. These bills would double the current adoption incentive to $10,000 to state OPS workers and veterans. Throughout the state, there is a disparity between the number of kids awaiting adoption in the child welfare system and the number of qualified, willing, loving families to adopt them.

If these bills are passed, some of the financial burden caused by the long process and sometimes prohibitive cost can be lifted, opening the opportunity for more children to find their forever homes. These bills are nearing the end of the process. SB 136 was laid on the table and HB 61 was substituted. HB 61 is in third reading in the Senate on 2/26.

Bills that would eliminate the time limitations for prosecution for victims of sexual battery under the age of 18 are nearing the finish line. HB 199 and SB 170 by Representative Davis (D-Jacksonville) and Senator Stewart (D-Orlando) would change the current law that allows for no statute of limitations unless the victim is under 16, or if the victim is over 16 but the crime is reported to law enforcement within 72 hours of the offense, or the crime is a first degree felony and the victim is under 18.

According to The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s 2015 National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence survey, nearly one in five women and nearly one in 38 men have experienced attempted or completed rape in their lifetimes. Of those women and men, 43.2% of female victims 51.3% of male victims experienced victimization prior to age 18. The same survey found that only 12% of child sexual abuse is reported to the appropriate authorities. HB 199 is in second reading in the House and SB 170 is in its final committee of reference.

SB 124 by Senator Bean (R-Jacksonville) and HB 185 by Representative Roach (R-North Fort Myers) were introduced this session in an effort to solve custody battles that occur when children are placed with extended family for a substantial period of time. These bills focus on the best interest of the child when dealing with situations of concurrent custody and the use of judicial discretion.

The emphasis on concurrent custody is inspired by situations where a relative is left to care for a child full-time without a formal custody agreement. This often occurs when the parent leaves due to military deployment, meeting a job-related requirement, experiencing an extended illness, being incarcerated or seeking assistance for a substance use disorder. These situations can leave a child with an unstable home life. These bills allow for judges to make custody decisions that include the integration of a transition plan to ensure that the psychological and emotional needs of the child are met.  

As SB 124 has moved through the process, Senator Bean expressed his passion for policies that support permanency and consistency because they are what is best for a child. In committee hearings, lawyers and advocates spoke against the bills due to concern over the grey area that could infringe on parental rights and make the process of finding a permanent home longer in some cases. Following a substantive amendment, the concerns have died down. SB 124 is in messages to the House and HB 185 is on its second reading in the House.

Human Trafficking: 

Although human trafficking education in schools was required by administrative rule last year, SB 154 by Senator Thurston, Jr. (D-Fort Lauderdale) and HB 105 by Representative Williams (D-Fort Lauderdale) will place that requirement into statute. Teaching human trafficking awareness lessons within regular health education instruction for grades 7-12 may help combat human trafficking in the state. The average age a girl enters the commercial sex trade is 12-14 years old, and for boys it is 11-13 years old. 

These bills target this extremely vulnerable population and, if passed, could prevent more children from becoming victims of this crime. SB 154 has passed through its committees unanimously and in second reading in the Senate. HB 105 has yet to be heard. Concerns voiced in the Senate include: the time within a school day for this type of instruction, parental consent and the requirement of charter schools to include this instruction as well. All senators agree, however, that increasing awareness of human trafficking at an early age is a step in the right direction. 

Health and Safety:

Since 2010, there have been 20,932 incidents of seclusion and 80,669 incidents of restraint on students with disabilities in Florida’s public schools. SB 1644 by Senator Book (D-Plantation) and HB 1231 by Representative DuBois (D-Fort Lauderdale) prohibit placing a student in seclusion and provide that restraint may only be used to protect students of school personnel, but not for disciplinary reasons.

The bills prohibit straightjackets, zip ties, handcuffs, tie-downs and restraint techniques that restrict breathing or blood flow or inflict pain to induce compliance. HB 1231 is on second reading in the House, while SB 1644 scheduled to be heard in the Appropriations Subcommittee on Education on 2/25 at 9:00am in room 412K.  

The Florida Kidcare Program is currently out of compliance with federal law due to Florida’s lifetime spending cap of $1,000,000. Unsurprisingly, the bills that address this glaring issue, SB 348 by Senator Bean (R-Jacksonville) and HB 6031 by Representative Pigman (R-Sebring), have been flying through committee meetings with no debate. These bills remove the lifetime maximum spending cap, which can exclude those who require expensive treatments and services, and would place the program back in compliance with federal law. This change allows Florida to receive the federal dollars required to fund the program and continue to cover the 2.3 million children currently enrolled in Florida Kidcare. SB 348 is in messages to the House and HB 6031 is on its second reading in the House.

Currently, Florida children are required to use a booster seat when transported in a motor vehicle until the age of 5. HB 533 by Representative Beltran (R-Valrico) and SB 158 by Senator Perry (R-Gainesville) increases the age requirement in statute to the age of 6, inching closer towards recommendations made by both the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDCP) and The American Association of Pediatrics (AAP). According to the CDCP, booster use reduces the risk of serious injury from 45% in children 4-8 years relative to seat belt use alone. HB 533 was heard in the Transportation and Infrastructure Subcommittee meeting on February 4th, where Representative Hart (D-Tampa) and Representative Driskell (D-Winter Haven) brought up the discrepancy between AAP recommendations of increasing the required age to 8 and the legislation at hand. Representative Beltran assured them that he would be willing to have the bill reflect AAP age recommendations as well as height and weight requirements if the consensus agrees to do so, and that he considersthis a first step. HB 533 is in its second committee of reference, Children, Families & Seniors Subcommittee and SB 158 is its final committee, Rules.

Juvenile Justice: 

Continuing the work the state has done to eliminate youthful misdeeds from impacting a child’s future, bills that would automatically expunge a juvenile’s records upon completion of a juvenile diversion program are moving through the process. HB 615 by Representative Sabatini (R-Clermont) and SB 700 by Senator Perry (R-Gainesville) would allow for expunction of records for successful completion of a diversion program regardless of the offense that brought the juvenile into the diversion program. HB 615 is on second reading in the House and SB 700 has passed its final committee of reference.

Community Leaders Come Together to Make Sure Every Floridian is Counted

A statewide volunteer committee of 43 proven leaders and advocates has joined together to address the potential undercount of children in the 2020 Census. Organized by American Children’s Campaign, the group aims to engage media and augment the work of the more than 300 Local Complete Count Committees and grassroots organizations with a special emphasis on hard-to-count areas.

“If Florida does not improve its count of children, or, worse, dips, the state will lose more than a BILLION dollars in revenue to support vital children’s services. With gaps and waiting lists existing in nearly all areas of care, which has contributed to Florida’s Kids Count declining ranking over several years, any loss of revenue will have harmful effects,” said Roy Miller, president of American Children’s Campaign. “Every system of care will be impacted, ranging from prenatal care, early learning and child care, special needs, health, education, child well-being, social justice and more.”

More Information on the important work of the Count All Kids State Committee can be found here.

Next Steps

American Children’s Campaign will continue to provide Action Alerts, social media updates and bill updates as the legislative process rushes to the finish line. Be on the lookout for a Capitol Report at the conclusion of the 2020 Session that will provide updates on which bills passed and what that means for children, what bills died in the process and the next steps for child advocacy in an election year.

If you like reading our publications, we need your help to keep them coming. The Children’s Campaign is privately supported to maintain our independent voice. Please consider making a tax-deductible donation today!

This Capitol Report is brought to you by Amanda Ostrander, Karen Bonsignori and Roy Miller.