Children’s Week, starting today, also kicks off the third week of legislative session. Actually, Children’s Week began yesterday with the Hanging of The Hands in the state capitol rotunda. The brightness of the colors from thousands of hands streaming down multiple stories evoke feelings of hope and joy. Outside, in the capitol courtyard, hundreds of small children run and play amid the booths erected and staffed by provider organizations and coalitions creating a fair-like atmosphere. Cameras inside a media truck parked to the side record interviews with legislators and others about children being the future. 

All of it is designed to tug at the heart to drum beat a message about the urgency to provide for all of Florida’s children. It is timely. The health and well-being of children is at or near crisis levels in many major indicators. The state’s ranking in pre-k quality and Kids Count should be a wake-up call in and of themselves. Turnover of staff in child welfare is exorbitant, as is the escalating misuse of the Baker Act in addressing child behavioral issues, in many cases, a mere temper tantrum.

Children and All Who Serve Them Deserve More

The style of Children’s Week’s is a sharp contrast to the teacher rally at the Capitol during week one of legislative session. Teachers marched, held brazen signs, chanted and loudly made their case to increase the state’s investment in education. The rally was impressive even if it wasn’t as punchy as the televised images from protests in Arizona, Kentucky and Wisconsin where teachers stormed the halls. Those rallies were demanding, and not at all subtle about power and the use of it. Florida Governor DeSantis took his cues from those other states and acted to get in front of the wave rather than waiting to be swept up in it. He has proposed major increases in beginning salaries and pivoted quickly when experienced teachers pointed out the injustice if their pay stubs didn’t reflect upward adjustments as well. 

Teachers deserve it. 

So do the professionals, paraprofessionals and programs that serve children in too many settings to list. There’s a lot more to educational and future success than what happens in the little and not so little school houses. The quality of life for children the sixteen hours each day they are not in school is just as important. Children traumatized by gunfire in their neighborhoods and who witness lives bleeding away do not learn well. Children who start behind due to a lack of pre-natal care generally do not catch up unless quality early learning and intervention services alter the too traveled trajectory. Child neglect, abuse and bouncing around foster care don’t result in good report cards either. Stints in scantily-funded  juvenile justice lock-ups without attention to the child’s many learning, health and emotional deficits don’t advance educational or life outcomes. Our prisons are eating more of the state budget each year. They are monuments to the failures of not making children a priority.

The state of Florida may not realize it, but kids are being traded for kids by an investment strategy that recognizes teachers but not everyone important to a child’s life from pre-natal care to early learning to special needs to child health and well-being to criminal justice.

Yes, teachers deserve it.

So do others.

Everyone loves Children’s Week. Let’s celebrate. But is it also time to add options to the annual script?

Developments to Date

The top question from child advocates at the start of session was “will children’s issues be on board or left behind?”

Two weeks in, and taking cues from a range of signals, it appears we’re in for an interesting ride.

In the governor’s State of the State address he mentioned the good goals of DCF Secretary Chad Poppell to reduce the number of children awaiting adoption. He smartly did not endorse Poppell’s other spoken goal to lock up foster children rather than fixing the reasons some children experience upwards of forty or more placements. Speaker of the House Oliva in his remarks proclaimed Florida’s budget will target wage increases for child protective investigators and supervisors, as well as additional dollars for support staff.

“These fine folks work day in and day out in some of the most stressing environments and have to make decisions that are critical to children’s safety and parents’ rights. We must support their efforts and provide them with the tools needed to succeed,” stated Speaker Oliva.

Child welfare was also the topic of future Senate President Wilton Simpson (R-Trilby) who announced that children “stuck in the foster care system” would be one of his focus areas during his tenure. Stating, “it would be more expensive not to,” Simpson told reporters that he would prioritize shortening the time foster children spend waiting to be adopted and the number of placements they experience while in the care of the department. 

This strong focus on child welfare was reflected in the agenda of legislative committees the past two weeks. Bills that focused on early childhood courts, training of dependency judges, the operations of DCF, permanency issues and services to families in crisis who do not yet meet the criteria of abuse and neglect passed easily.

HB 185 by Representative Roach (R-North Fort Myers) requires review of children’s best interests when dealing with concurrent custody cases. This will keep from disrupting homes in which foster children feel secure whenever possible. HB 61 by Representative Roth (R-Palm Beach Gardens) takes financial adoption incentives offered to state and OPS workers and extends them to veterans and service members. This bill, in addition to others, will help more children in the child welfare system find adoptive homes. But why not extend benefits to all Florida adoptive families? Do we need a caste system of deserving people?

Following the path he has discussed for his future Senate Presidency, Senator Simpson’s SB 1324 supports judicial training, early childhood courts and places emphasis on the child’s best interest in deciding transitions in placement in out-of-home-care and builds in a quicker safety net for those remaining in-home with services and a safety plan. 

SB 1324 also requires a relationship between foster parents and biological parents. This relationship will require an additional burden on foster parents and could signify the need to model shift to professional foster parenting – based on the time commitment required. Senator Simpson’s other bill, SB 1326 creates a quality assurance arm within the Department and requires review and assessment of all services contracted. These reviews would be tied to funding of Community-Based Care (CBC) organizations. SB 1326 also permits Community-Based Care organizations to utilize funding for prevention services to families in crisis who do not yet meet the criteria of abuse and neglect. These services could keep families from entering the system by offering them the support they need to stay together while keeping the children in the home safe. 

SB 122 by Senator Rouson (D- St. Petersburg) requires training for child welfare workers and law enforcement to recognize head injury and trauma in children under 6 and focuses on training, education and support for those who work to protect our most vulnerable children in the child welfare system. 

There are only a few bills currently moving that deal with children’s health care. SB 348 by Senator Bean (R-Gainesville) and HB 6031 by Representative Pigman (R-Sebring) remove the lifetime maximum spending cap of the Florida KidCare health insurance program and would bring the state of Florida in compliance with the federal funding requirements for the program that provides low cost health care to low income children. In 2018, Florida had the second largest number of uninsured children nationwide. SB 158 by Senator Perry (R-Gainesville), which increases booster seat age requirements, has passed easily through the Senate thus far, but may be facing obstacles in the House. 

Children’s Issues in the Waiting Area

Unfortunately, not all children’s issues appear to be on board. Juvenile justice got brief attention when the Senate Committee on Criminal Justice and the House Criminal Justice Subcommittee heard SB 700 by Senator Perry (R -Gainesville) and HB 615 by Representative Watson (D-Miami Gardens). These bills would elevate successful participation in a juvenile diversion program to having records expunged for more crimes than current law allows. This would continue the work of American Children’s Campaign to make sure that youthful misdeeds don’t negatively impact children into adulthood. Bills that would restrict placing youth in solitary confinement, and reduce direct file, have yet to be scheduled. 

Several attempts to address institutionalized child trauma have been filed but are awaiting scheduling:

  • Bills addressing harmful conversion therapy, SB 180 by Senator Rodriguez (D-Miami) and HB 41 by Representative Grieco (D-North Bay Village), have been filed for the 4th year; 
  • Bills that would address the crisis of Florida’s children being involuntary examined – what appears to be the new pipeline to school disconnection – are waiting to be heard.

Are these issues destined to miss the “train” again this year? In this quick moving Session, even only two weeks in, time may be running out. Speak up during Children’s Week. Get all these good bills moving.  

Congratulations to Jack Levine

Jack Levine, long-time child advocate, friend and founder of 4Generations Institute, is being recognized tonight at the Children’s Week Awards Ceremony for his extraordinary efforts in engaging others to improve the lives of Florida’s children. He is being presented with the Chiles Advocacy Award, which honors former U.S. Senator and Florida Governor Lawton Chiles, and his wife, Rhea. Such an honor is very well deserved indeed.

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