With half of the committee weeks already completed, the January 14th start date for Florida’s 2020 Legislative Session is approaching nearly as fast as holiday decorations are popping up in stores. 

Proponents for increased budgetary attention on children’s services gaps range from prenatal care to child welfare and juvenile justice will again struggle for attention within appropriations (always a focus, especially in election years), divisive core issues, continuing proposals related to the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School tragedy, teacher salaries, the environment and more. But there is a bright light for Florida’s children on the horizon.

Upcoming Senate President Names Children’s Issues as Top Priority

Senator Wilton Simpson (R-Trilby), elected by his peers to succeed Senator Galvano (R-Bradenton) as Senate President following the 2020 elections, has identified children as one of his top priorities. 

While overseeing the redistricting required following the completion of a national Census, the self-described farmer and entrepreneur plans to focus on placement stability in foster care and the amount of time children wait to be adopted. He also understands that addressing these challenges would come at a cost, telling reporters that it would be “more expensive not to do it.”

Sen. Simpson plans to work closely with First Lady Casey DeSantis who is a top advisor to her husband, Governor Ron DeSantis, and serves as Chair of the Children and Youth Cabinet.

Key Children’s Issues Bills Making Progress

Bills supporting areas of our Policy and Legislative Agenda are already moving. Passing its first committee was SB 236 by Senator Book (D-Plantation) requiring core components for early childhood courts and putting in place a statewide administration process for the program. It is moving on to the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Criminal and Civil Justice. SB 178, a bill increasing the age required to keep children in booster seats also passed its first committee. Sponsored by Senator Perry (R-Gainesville) the bill is moving on to Senate Infrastructure and Security. A bill removing the time limitations for children under age 18 at the time of the crime to press charges for sexual battery, SB 170 by Senator Stewart (D-Orlando), passed the Senate Criminal Justice following an amendment. The bill’s next stop is the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Criminal and Civil Justice.

Moving Florida’s Child Welfare System from Crisis Intervention to Prevention

To begin changing the “emergency room” orientation of the Department of Children and Families (DCF), with the agency responding to crises rather than preventing them, Secretary Chad Poppell spoke before House and Senate committees. Although several plans were offered by previous Secretaries with idealistic aspirations of large-scale departmental change, none sustained momentum, resulting in partial implementation. Poppell’s plan consists of clearly communicated overarching goals reducing the number of Florida families in crisis by 2021; streamlining technology and reporting used by child protective investigators; and reducing DCFs’ current recidivism rate. 

Secretary Poppell believes that the quality of services must be closely monitored and held to the same standard across locations. As a result, he is proposing to move the quality assurance office back to the Department, reversing course from previous legislative decisions to push QA out to contracted DCF entities. American Children’s Campaign strongly supports this proposed QA strategy.

In his report to the House Children, Families & Seniors Subcommittee, Poppell stated that a CPI workgroup found over 1-million work hours that can be better utilized. Recommendations for a fix included prioritizing technology and automating forms. The same process will be followed with case managers, Community Based Care (CBC) providers and Children’s Legal Services (CLS) attorneys. Poppell anticipates that they could identify other solutions to repurpose an additional million hours. 

Please donate

The fact that 20.1% of DCF-involved families reenter a state of crisis within 12 months of their last intervention was highlighted. The Department goal is to reduce that to 15% by June 2021. Poppell partially blames the low level of accountability for poor performance for the current high recidivism rate. Funding formulas must be addressed as well because it makes accountability more complex when disparities exist across the Community Based Care network. 

To fix this, he proposes the Department reevaluate how CBC funds are budgeted by the Legislature and then allocated. For example, currently, there is no consistent methodology applied to how funds are allocated to each of the 17 CBCs. The current funding model also lacks flexibility in addressing fluctuation in the number of children coming into and leaving care.  Poppell’s proposal is to develop a new funding model this session with the goal of getting every lead agency to acceptable consistent funding in the span of 4 years. The plan aims to move money from out-of-home care to prevention and client services. American Children’s Campaign strongly supports addressing the funding disparities and flexibilities.

In his otherwise cogent and impressive presentation, there was some inconsistency. While he proposes to initiate a financial penalty to CBC’s for the use of group homes, Poppell mentioned a possible need for secure group homes, an option already panned in the Hillsborough County area (Tampa) where the placement of children is most acute. American Children’s Campaign is on record of opposing locking up foster care kids due to the system failures and service gaps that Poppell appeared to acknowledge throughout his presentation.  

Policymakers appeared appreciative about the overall proposal that was created with the help of The Florida Coalition for Children, several workgroups and DCF staff.

Children’s Mental Health Access Continues to Trouble Florida

In the wake of high-profile school shootings, specifically at Marjory Stoneman Douglas on February 14, 2018, there has been increased awareness for students’ mental health and well-being. This increased concern, along with a push to reduce the ‘school-to-prison pipeline’, has resulted in children being Baker Acted at increasingly alarming rates. Between 2010 and 2018, the number of children in Florida who were “Baker Acted”, or involuntarily examined, increased by 65%. More than 14,000 minors who were “Baker Acted” during fiscal year 2017/2018 were children 13 and younger. Some as young as 4, 6 and 8 who were handcuffed and transported made major newspaper headlines.

In the 2018 legislative session, SB 7026 allocated $69.2 million in funds to train educators and school staff regarding students’ mental health/substance abuse. In 2019, SB 7030 increased the funding allocation to $75 million to train trainers in every district. This year, Commissioner Corcoran and the state board requested continuation of those funds to extend and update those trainings. Their goal is to increase funding allocation to $100 million. 

Mental health advocates are questioning if the money being invested into the program would lead to better outcomes if more closely engaging and coordinating with community mental health and service agencies. In 2018, 114 children (ages 0-18) died by suicide. Over 6,000 Florida middle and high school students reported feeling sad or helpless almost every day for two weeks or more in a row. 

American Children’s Campaign’s 2020 Policy Agenda is Available

American Children’s Campaign’s 2020 Policy Priorities that will guide our legislative focus and outreach throughout the remainder of the year is available. It ensures that public awareness is built upon proven research and the best interests of children. The Agenda is now more than a list of important topics. Instead, it is focused on four core priorities: 1) stopping institutionalized child trauma, 2) systemic improvements, 3) addressing persistent problems and 4) guiding administrative remedies. 

Each core priority has specific recommendations that can be viewed in full by visiting our website. Highlights include opposing the locking up of children who have experienced trauma; banning the use of seclusion and restraint on children with disabilities; keeping juveniles from solitary confinement; expanding KidCare eligibility; and addressing issues needed to improve pre-k quality. 

Other issues will receive attention as well, as American Children’s Campaign is not backing away from multi-year efforts to make improvements. But extra energy will be spent bringing the Agenda forward, especially with the soon to be released Candidate Connection to inform candidates, citizens and media about the significant issues facing Florida’s children and how they could be positively addressed. Look for news of its release. 

For up-to-date, real-time movement of legislation visit our online Legislative Center and Issue Pages. Also, keep an eye on your inbox and our Action Alert page for timely requests to advocate for Florida’s children.

In addition, Capitol Report, a review of legislative actions on children’s issues, will continue to be published at targeted intervals. 

What’s Next?

On the agenda for the fourth committee week, starting on November 4th

SB 348 by Senator Bean (R-Jacksonville) would remove the lifetime maximum cap on covered expenses for children enrolled in the Florida Healthy Kids Program. It will be heard in the Senate Health Policy Committee on 11/5 at 10am in room 412K.

The Senate Children, Families, and Elder Affairs Committee is set todiscuss several bills pertaining to children including: SB 88 by Senator Stewart (D-Orlando) would place alarms in vehicles used by child care facilities and large family day cares, SB 124 by Senator Bean (R-Jacksonville) which addresses developmentally appropriate transition of custody by extended family members for children in the child welfare system and SB 354 by Senator Montford (D-Quincy) which provides child care subsidies for children in foster care. This is a priority for American Children’s Campaign. The committee will meet on 11/5 at 2:00pm in room 301 S. 

A bill that will allow a judge not to impose a mandatory minimum prison sentence for a person convicted of trafficking, SB 468 by Senator Brandes (R-St. Petersburg), will be heard in Senate Judiciary committee on 11/5 at 2:00pm in room 110 S. It’s unclear at this time whether the intent to advocate for victims who are coerced and threatened with their very lives into trafficking themselves could also allow the real trafficker to receive leaner sentences.

Links with contact information for committee members are included. Agendas will continue to be released throughout this week. 

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.