Debate over Federal Covid Dollars Waits in the Shadows

Thinking back to the start of legislative session, advocates were alerted that Florida’s child welfare system would become a key topic of conversation.

Florida Senate President Wilton Simpson (R-Trilby) made a point of it again in his session opening remarks as he has done with every major address to his assembly dating back months. House Speaker Sprowls signaled that the two leaders were in discussion with mention of foster care in his remarks as well.

Governor DeSantis appears to be comfortable on the sidelines of child welfare policy, choosing instead to focus on issues emanating from the drama of 2020: anti-protest legislation; mail-in voting; and attempting to bind editorial decisions by social media and technology companies. Political observers in private and not-so-private conversations convey that it’s certain by now that the governor’s sights extend beyond Florida and his re-election campaign. Children’s issues have not been the center point of national politics as far back as any boomers or their more aging parents can remember. Governor DeSantis is leaving that policy debate clearly to the legislature.

The child welfare focus is notable for not only what is being discussed, but also for what is missing.  While great concern is being shown to children who are abused and neglected at home, the same level of examination is not being directed to the hundreds of special needs children who suffer systemic abuse in the form of isolation and restraints in public classrooms, even though the numbers are quite shocking. If not for Rep. Dubose (D-Ft. Lauderdale) and his HB 149, which has passed all three of its substantive committees, the abusive practices up to this point have received scant attention. Senator Book (D – Plantation) has yet to persuade the chair of the first committee of reference to put SB 192 on the agenda

Senator Perry (R-Gainesville) has moved the safety raising Booster Seat bill (SB 380) through the Senate without the bill ever receiving a vote against. However, in the House, Rep. Drake (R-Panhandle) hasn’t seen fit yet to calendar HB 297 in his Tourism, Infrastructure and Energy Committee.

Pre-session, there appeared to be interest in addressing the escalating use of the Baker Act and the resultant colossal waste of money dragging children into involuntary mental health evaluation and, due to a range of administrative factors, stays in expensive crisis stabilization units. The use of the Baker Act is the new pathway to remove children from school settings for behavior annoying to the school resource officers and administrators, including school-based misdemeanors which could be handled under “civil citation” laws, a criminal justice reform championed by The Children’s Campaign. Bills addressing the school based problem appear not to be focused on the negative emotional aftermath on children but more on a “strip down” path addressing parental notification as the primary concern. This is a developing story.

Soon to follow at the capitol will be the debate about the state budget. Despite intense criticism of the new Biden administration wafting from Florida through many channels, Florida will receive billions in COVID Relief dollars, even though neither United States Senator (Scott, Rubio) voted for it nor was the House vote any different in that it was split cleanly between party lines. These votes in D.C. are in contrast to the 77% of citizens who support COVID Relief. Certainly, there are items tucked inside the package that would be better to leave out, but isn’t that true of every federal spending measure? The bottom line is that rank and file citizens, families and children need the support, and they need it now.

Combined with the shortfalls of the pandemic, more children and families than ever before subsist paycheck to paycheck, face hunger, homelessness, evictions, inaccessible quality child care and school opportunities and increases in sexual exploitation and trafficking. As the third largest state in the nation, this is translating into an enormous amount of hardship. According to Annie E. Casey’s latest Kids, Family and COVID report, Florida families fared worse than the national average on not having enough to eat (16%), having little confidence of paying rent (23%), lacking health insurance (15%) or feeling depressed (20%).

Against this backdrop it was disheartening to read ramped up commentary from the executive branch of Florida’s government about using the newfound funds for resiliency, the word used to describe sea level rise without admitting the cause (climate change). While sea level rise is legitimate, and its impact on Florida’s coastline is legitimate too, this problem is not related to COVID and not as immediately relevant to the millions of vulnerable Floridians affected the most by the pandemic.

 

Children’s Bills on the Move (or NOT): 

 

Fines and Fees for Juveniles: Bills that would stop the harmful practice of imposing fines and fees on Florida children for youthful misbehaviors have been filed: HB 1391 by Representative Davis (D-Jacksonville) and SB 1926 by Senator Gibson (D-Jacksonville). Florida professionals report children who have outstanding fines and fees receive extended probation and placement, can’t expunge their records, face civil judgment and have drivers’ licenses suspended. This profoundly harms children in their ability to further their education, maintain jobs and avoid homelessness. The Children’s Campaign has worked closely with the Fines and Fees Justice Center and the Juvenile Law Center to make this legislation a reality. In 2018, only a meager 11% ($658K) of the roughly $6.2 million in juvenile fines and fees assessed was collected. To learn more about the impact of Fines and Fees on Florida’s juveniles visit The Children’s Campaign’s website.

 

Booster Seats for Children: In 2017, over 8,000 Florida children ages 5-11 were killed or injured in a motor vehicle crash. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data shows booster seat use reduces the risk of serious injury by 45% in children 4-8 years compared to seat belt use alone.

 

Seclusion and Restraint on Students with Disabilities: In the 2017-18 school year, there were 8,367 documented incidents of restraints and 834 cases of seclusion. Slightly over half (51%) of restraints and 50% of seclusions were used on young children (Pre-K – 3rd grade). Although Florida has a history of arresting students with disabilities, hopefully the positive behavior intervention training requirements in this bill will keep negative behaviors from rising to the level of crisis needed for law enforcement intervention. For more information about restraint and seclusion watch The Children’s Campaign’s Webinar on Seclusion and Restraint on Students with Disabilities.

 

Child Welfare Reform: SB 80 by Senator Brodeur (R-Lake Mary) creates requirements for case record face sheets; provides placement priorities; establishes multidisciplinary teams; creates requirements for placement and education transition planning; and provides for sibling placement decisions in Florida’s child welfare system. SB 80 recognizes the importance of sibling relationships while also balancing the relationship the child develops with caregivers. Senator Brodeur stated, “If we believe government’s most primary role is to protect the most vulnerable among us, I would argue that children who have been abused, neglected or abandoned are probably the biggest concern.” SB 80 has passed the Senate unanimously. HB 1473 by Representative Busatta Cabrera (R-Coral Gables) is a comparable bill that addresses similar provisions to SB 80, but also includes additional requirements for children transitioning into independent living after aging out of foster care. Addressing its first committee of reference, House Children, Families, and Seniors Subcommittee, Rep. Busatta Cabrera stated, “HB 1473 supports older foster youth by better preparing them for adulthood and improving permanency so that they do not stay in foster care until the age of 18.” The bill passed unanimously and is now on to the House Health Care Appropriations subcommittee.

 

Administration in Child Welfare: SB 92, a bill that would address multiple administrative changes within the Department of Children and Families, passed its second committee of reference, Appropriations Subcommittee on Health and Human Services with an amendment, removing the original proposed salary cap for managing entities and employees. An identical bill, HB 1417 by Representative Fischer (R-Jacksonville) has yet to be heard in any of its committees of reference.

 

Age Restrictions in Juvenile Justice: SB 626, also known as the Kaia Rolle Act, by Senator Bracy (D-Orlando) prohibits children younger than 7 years old from being taken into custody, arrested, charged or adjudicated unless they are suspected of committing a forcible felony. Two years ago, six-year-old Kaia Rolle from Orlando was taken from her first-grade class, handcuffed and arrested for throwing a tantrum. Kaia was unable to control herself in class due to being tired from sleep apnea. Marilyn Kirkland, Kaia’s grandmother, spoke about the effects of her arrest, “[Kaia] now has separation anxiety, fear of confinement and takes medication for pediatric PTSD.” SB 626 passed its second committee and is now in Rules. HB 303 by Representative Williams (D-Fort Lauderdale) was amended as it passed its first committee of reference, the House Criminal Justice & Public Safety Subcommittee, to be a comparable bill for SB 626.

 

Transfer to Adult Court: A bill that would increase the minimum age from 14 to 15 for a child to qualify for involuntary discretionary waiver and involuntary mandatory waiver – the process of transferring children to adult court, SB 474 by Senator Bracy (D-Orlando) passed its second committee of reference, Senate Criminal Justice. The bill does not have a companion in the House.

 

Juvenile Diversion Program Expunction: Bills that aim to expunge records for juvenile diversion programs, HB 93 by Representative Smith (R-Winter Springs) and SB 274 by Senator Perry (R-Gainesville), are moving quickly through the legislative process. Diversion refers to a program that is designed to keep a juvenile from entering the juvenile justice system through the legal process. Both bills have made it to their third committees of reference without a vote against either proposal. These bills continue the important work of The Children’s Campaign and juvenile justice advocates, to keep youthful misdeeds from impacting the adult life of children. The next stop for HB 93 is the House Judiciary committee and SB 274 is the Senate Appropriations committee.

 

Human Trafficking Education in Schools: HB 519 by Representative Yarborough (R-Jacksonville) would place information about the prevention of child sexual abuse, exploitation and human trafficking in the required health curriculum. The Department of Education passed three administrative rules in the 2019-2020 school year requiring schools to provide education on human trafficking, mental health and substance use and abuse. Representative Yarborough explained in committee that these issues are all interrelated and often begin with childhood trauma, which can take the form of childhood sexual abuse. The bill is now in its final committee of reference, House Education & Employment committee. The bill’s companion, SB 1094 by Senator Bean (R-Jacksonville) is scheduled to be heard in its first committee, Senate Education on 3/23 at 12:30pm.

 

Human Trafficking: A bill that would address the training of volunteers helping those who are survivors of human trafficking, make the court process easier for victims and expunge criminal records for non-trafficking crimes committed while they were victims, HB 523 by Representative Toledo (R-Tampa) passed its first committee with an amendment. Similar bill, SB 1826 by Senator Diaz (R-Hialeah Gardens) also made it through its first committee of reference unanimously, it is scheduled to be heard in its next committee, Senate Criminal Justice on 3/23 at 12:30pm. Treating the behavior of human trafficking victims as criminal re-victimizes them and the process to hold their traffickers accountable can do the same. This legislation would make it easier to prosecute traffickers and provide support to victims.

 

Next Steps

The Children’s Campaign will continue to provide Action Alerts, social media updates and bill updates as children’s bills move through the legislative process. Be on the lookout for a Capitol Report at the midpoint and conclusion of the 2021 Session that will provide updates on which bills are moving and have passed and what that means for children, what bills died in the process and the next steps for child advocacy.

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