The end of session was shadowed by the looming fear of COVID-19’s impact on the health and the financial stability of a state that relies mostly on sales tax revenue. In one of the quietest 60 days on record, fewer substantive bills passed both chambers than in previous years. This was followed by a designated day to vote on the budget that swiftly passed. Adjournment carried none of the normal pomp and circumstance. 

2020 Legislation by the Numbers 

In total 3,517 substantive, appropriations, concurrent resolutions, local resolutions and memorial bills were filed. Five percent (191) passed by both the Senate and House were substantive, meaning they would change in some way the policy of the state. These get passed along to the governor.

317 substantive bills passed one chamber, but were unable to reach concurrence from the other. 

Of all bills filed, 937 (27%) included the word “child” in the content and 424 (12%) referenced “juvenile”. This included both substantive bills and appropriations projects. American Children’s Campaign followed 184 substantive bills, of which 21 are headed to the Governor for his signature or rejection. 

Priority Bills of American Children’s Campaign That Passed

No statute of limitation for sexual battery on children: “Donna’s Law” will allow for the prosecution of sexual battery on victims under 18 by removing the statute of limitations. HB 199 by Representative Davis (D-Jacksonville) supports overwhelming evidence that sexual assault victims require substantial time to process and heal before coming forward. Senator Stewart (D-Orlando) sponsored the companion bill in the Senate. 

Jordan’s Law: HB 43 by Representative Latvala (R-Clearwater) passed in its second attempt following his dedication over 2 years to turn the tragic death of Jordan Belliveau into policy change. The bill will require the Florida Court Educational Council to establish standards for instruction of judges, child protection teams, Guardian Ad Litems, child welfare personnel, attorneys and law enforcement officers regarding head trauma and brain injury for children under 6. The bill will also require the Department of Law Enforcement to provide information to officers on open Child Protection Investigations, and for officers in turn to provide information to the child abuse hotline if they have an interaction with the parents or guardian in an open case. The companion bill was carried by Senator Rouson (D-St. Petersburg). This bill takes a first step to address the tragic case that highlighted many flaws in the struggling child welfare system. 

Child welfare oversight and administration: HB 1105 by Representative Tomkow (R-Auburndale), among other provisions, requires training for dependency court judges on the benefits of stable placements and related issues, and requires judges to consider certain factors related to stability when determining whether to change a child’s placement. The bill also clarifies the creation of early childhood court programs, and requires them to support the therapeutic needs of the parent and child, work in multidisciplinary teams and have a community coordinator to facilitate service and resources. Included in the bill is a requirement that the court and case managers monitor relationships between foster parents and biological parents to encourage a productive working relationship that includes meaningful communication and mutual support. The companion bill was championed by Senator Simpson (R-Spring Hill). 

Senator Simpson’s other child welfare bill, SB 1326,requires the Department of Children and Families (DCF) to establish an Office of Quality that will create and measure performance metrics, and develop a statewide accountability system for the child welfare system. The bill also directs DCF to implement policies and procedures to mitigate CPI burnout and secondary traumatic stress. The responsibilities of The Florida Institute for Child Welfare will expand to inform, train and engage social work students for a successful career in child welfare. This bill provides a system of checks and balances and heightened accountability within DCF. Its comparable bill, HB 7063, was co-sponsored by Representative Ponder.

A bill envisioned especially by the Guardian ad Litem program, SB 124 by Senator Bean (R-Jacksonville and Representative Roach (R-North Fort Myers) revises requirements for custody transitions by extended family. This will allow children who have parents who leave their care due to military deployment, meeting a job-related requirement, experiencing an extended illness, being incarcerated or seeking assistance for a substance use disorder to be cared for by extended family.

HB 61 by Representative Roth (R-Palm Beach Gardens) allows temporary state employees and veterans or service members living in Florida to access adoption benefits for the adoption of a child from the state’s child welfare system. This incentive will create the opportunity for more children to achieve permanency in a loving, adoptive home. Senator Bean (D-Jacksonville) sponsored the Senate companion. 

Removal of $1 million lifetime medical cap: Legislation that puts Florida back into federal compliance by removing the $1-million lifetime cap on medical services for children under the Florida KidCare Program, SB 348 by Senator Bean, sailed through both chambers. It was sponsored by Representative Pigman (R-Sebring) in the House. 

Overuse of Baker Act: Senator Silvers (D-West Palm Beach) moved a measure that begins to address the escalating overuse of involuntary evaluation or “Baker Act” on children. SB 945 requires appropriate state agencies to identify those 25 and under who are the most frequently referred to crisis stabilization services, and to take action to address the behavioral needs of those children. It also requires the use of de-escalation strategies prior to exercising the Baker Act unless children are a danger to themselves or others in the school. It tasks the Louis de la Parte Florida Mental Health Institute within the University of South Florida to create best practices for Mobile Response Teams. Representative Powell (D-West Palm Beach) sponsored the companion bill.

Priority Bills Of American Children’s Campaign That Did NOT Pass

Every session has good bills that do not make it through the process. This session was no different with the demise of policy that could have changed for the better the way in that the state protects its most vulnerable populations: 

Prohibiting dangerous conversion therapy: For the 5th year in a row, legislation that would prohibit licensed practitioners from practicing dangerous conversion therapy was filed and never scheduled. HB 41 by Representative Grieco (D-North Bay Village) and SB 180 by Senator Rodriguez (D-Miami) would have prohibited this practice that’s discredited by all major medical and mental health associations as both ineffective and dangerous. Conversion or “reparative” therapy can result in increased risk for depression, anxiety, substance use and suicide and children have been proven to be especially vulnerable to its lasting negative effects. 

Use of restraints in public schools: SB 62 & HB 1231, by Senator Book (D-Plantation) & Representative Dubose (D-Fort Lauderdale) respectively, is of critical importance to special needs children. It would have prohibited the use of seclusion and restricted the use of restraints on a child if and only if the child is a danger to self or others and not as punishment. The bills also required schools to adopt policies and procedures related to positive behavior interventions. During the 2018-2019 school year, there were 744 incidents of seclusion and 8,650 incidents of restraint in Florida public schools. HB 1231 passed the House and was received by the Senate, but never taken up. 

Child booster seats: Legislation that would have increased the age a child needs to be restrained in a booster seat to age 6 was unable to get the support it needed in the closing days. This would’ve moved the state closer to the suggested minimum requirement of 8 years by the American Academy of Pediatrics. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, booster use reduces the risk of serious injury from 45% in children 4-8 years relative to seat belt use alone. In 2017, over 8,000 Florida children ages 5-11 were killed or injured in a motor vehicle crash. Originally HB 533 and SB 158 sponsored by Representative Beltran (R-Valrico) and Senator Perry (R-Gainesville), the Booster bill got new life when it was amended into the omnibus Transportation bill (HB 395), but with its many expensive projects it failed to get a Senate hearing after passing the House.

Foster parent early education subsidies: Sponsored by Representative Roth (R-Palm Beach Gardens) and Senator Montford (D-Quincy), HB 193 and SB 354 would have provided an additional subsidy per month for foster parents who are required to place their foster children in an early education or child care program. There has been a 13.2% increase from 2011 to 2017 in the number of children in out-of-home care, and Florida faces many challenges in recruiting and retaining foster parents. The average cost for child care for children 0-4 in Florida can range from $770- $607 per month. DCF reports foster parents are paid $457 per month for children up to age 5, slots for free care and subsidies do exist, but are not always available to foster parents, forcing them to pay for care themselves. 

Youth solitary confinement: Bills by Senator Montford (D-Quincy) & Representative Alexander (D-Tallahassee), SB 436 and HB 347, prohibited the Department of Corrections from placing youth younger than 19 in solitary confinement with exceptions for emergency medical confinement. According to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and a wide range of experts, solitary confinement can cause extreme psychological, physical and developmental harm. For children, who are still developing and vulnerable to irreparable harm, the risks are magnified – particularly for kids with disabilities or histories of trauma and abuse. SB 436 passed its firstcommittee of reference and HB 347 was never scheduled. 

Other Important Bills That Passed

Florida Medicaid: This health administration bill aligns Florida with the Children’s Medical Service guidance. HB 81 sponsored by Representative Andrade (R-Pensacola) and Senator Montford (D-Quincy) directs that practitioners providing services in charter and private schools will not be required to directly enroll as Medicaid providers, so long as the charter or private school in which services occur is enrolled as a Medicaid provider.

PACE Center for Girls: Sponsored by Senator Simpson (R-Spring Hill), SB 1056 will provide ongoing alternatives in legislation to the further penetration of girls into the juvenile justice system by providing services such as education, counseling and training. The companion bill was sponsored by Rep. Trumbull (R-Panama City). 

School safety: While SB 7040 failed to make it through the process and would have implemented certain recommendations of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Public Safety Commission, a few bills addressing school and school bus safety did in fact pass. For example, SB 70 by Sen. Book (D-Plantation) requires public and charter schools to implement a panic alert system, known as “Alyssa’s Alert”. It also supports various emergency service technologies to be connected, ensuring real time coordination between first responders. The companion bill was carried by Rep. Gotlieb (D-Plantation) in the House. 

HB 37 by Rep. Zika (R-Land O’Lakes) and Rep. Slosberg (R-Palm Harbor) will increase the civil penalty for failure to stop for a school bus and for passing a school bus on the side that children enter and exit. The bill, carried by Sen. Hooper (R-Palm Harbor) in the Senate, also ratchets up the penalties if either offense is repeated within 5 years.

Public record exemptions: HB 7019 sponsored by Representative Shoaf (R-Perry) continues the public record exemption that keeps the identity of certain human trafficking victims safe from public record requests. HB 7023 keeps the exemptions from public records and public meetings requirements for certain identifying information held by State Child Abuse Death Review Committee.

Coming next week: More coverage of Florida’s budget and impact on children, families and those that serve them.

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