The public health and economic crises of COVID-19, rancor over the elections, coupled with the evolving acknowledgement of systemic inequities in the aftermath of the tragic deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and others, will require much introspection and policy change as we move forward in this “new normal.”

Florida like most of the nation has a long history of inequitable access by minority children to health care, quality early learning, special needs interventions and other preventative and developmental services. Florida has an equally tragic history of over-representation of minorities in out of home placements, school suspensions, arrests, being charged as adults, housing and food insecurity. The Children’s Campaign continues to focus attention on these unjust and harmful biases and imbalances as well as offering guidance to systemic improvements.

Our 2021-22 Policy Playbook is nonpartisan, provides highlights of legislative progress that’s been made since 2019, and identifies solutions where progress is still needed based on evidence and promising practices.

At The Children’s Campaign, we are most interested in sharing information about the condition of Florida’s children with those who desire to build a better future. This includes both policy-engaged citizens and policymakers. All, by participating in the public dialogue, going to the polls or by actually serving in public office or on public advisory boards, councils and commissions, are taking part in Being the Change.

For 2021-22, our Policy Playbook, and upcoming ZOOM conferences and other educational opportunities are designed to answer three primary questions on most people’s minds: (1) How do we best Promote Health, Safety and Equity during COVID-19 and its aftermath?, (2) What can be done to Stop Institutionalized Child Trauma? and (3) Are there specific policy improvements to Overcome Barriers to Success?

Promoting Health, Safety and Equity during COVID-19

Legislative Progress Made 2019-2020:

Baker Act overuse: Some steps were taken to begin examining the escalating overuse of involuntary mental health evaluation on children who are the most frequently referred to crisis stabilization services. Schools are required to use de-escalation strategies prior to exercising the Baker Act unless children are a danger to themselves or others. The Louis de la Parte Florida Mental Health Institute within the University of South Florida will create best practices for Mobile Response Teams. 

Progress Needed 2021-22:

Appropriations: The Children’s Campaign and Florida TaxWatch recommend that Florida join the interstate sales tax compact and enter into a new agreement with the Seminole Tribe. By doing so, nearly $1 billion in uncollected revenue could be added to the state budget. Florida’s overall investments in child health, protection and well-being are already chronically low. Any budget reductions that may occur due to COVID-19 revenue shortfall will be disastrous if applied to an already too thinly stretched safety net. For example, Florida currently ranks 49th in the country in mental health funding. How low can it go? Before cutting Florida’s budget for children, previous revenue reductions before the pandemic can be revisited, new fair and balanced opportunities enacted and out of control prison spending reigned in with true reform.

Mental Health: Mental Health in Florida needs an overhaul. Jails and prisons have become the de facto residential mental health provider – leading to bad outcomes and separation from family, children and community supports. At the local level, without each client being assigned a case manager who “hotspots” frequent users, a revolving door into expensive crisis stabilization has too few consuming the most resources. This greatly reduces care to others in need of less intensive services. The infusion of mental health dollars into public schools after the Parkland tragedy has provided some hope, but integration of such services with community mental health is inconsistent. The escalating use of the Baker Act to remove at-risk children from school is a major policy failure requiring an immediate fix. 

Maternal Health: Nearly 25 of every 100 pregnant women in Florida do not receive pre-natal care in the first trimester and 30 of every 100 do not receive an adequate number of prenatal care visits with their medical provider. This leads to a range of developmental and health risks, including a high maternal death rate of 24.7 for black women and 18.1 for all women. If Florida continues to resist expanding Medicaid, which is a mistake, then it must devise and fund a solution to ensure pre-natal care for all women throughout the full term of the pregnancy followed by post-delivery care. 

SNAP/Child Hunger: The federal government has opened additional SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) benefits and options to better feed struggling families during COVID-19. Florida should make full use of the optional benefits provided so no child or family goes hungry.

Human trafficking Education: Trafficking of children continues during COVID-19 and in many ways has become more dangerous. Although requiring public schools to include the dangers and warning signs of human trafficking in health education curriculum has been determined through administrative rulemaking, advocates are asking for legislation to secure its place in education.

Child Care & Early Learning: Finding quality and affordable child care before the COVID-19 pandemic was not easy. Now, it’s a crisis. As attempts unfold to kick-start the economy, many working parents are finding fewer available slots or even closed doors at their providers, and more cost due to new health safety guidelines and procedures. Some states like Florida are using federal funds to shore up child care but the sufficiency and duration are unknown. Providers and educators must also realize it is more likely than not for children to need remedial and catch-up work in pre-k, especially due to historical and current inequities in access to services, supports and early learning. Major policy work is needed to turn this crisis into an opportunity to set better and higher standards, address inequities and support working parents who form the backbone of the state and nation’s economy

Stopping Institutionalized Child Trauma

Legislative Progress Made 2019-2020:

Ends 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 deadline to bring legal action. The bill supports overwhelming evidence that sexual assault victims require substantial time to process and heal before coming forward.

Dignity for incarcerated women: Requires juvenile and county detention centers, correctional and other facilities to provide girls and women with certain health care products while restricting male employees from entering or viewing a space where an incarcerated woman would be in a state of undress or placing hands on them unless in an emergency when a female employee is unavailable.

Progress Needed 2021-22:

Elimination of seclusion and restriction of restraints in public schools: The practice of using seclusion and allowing restraints on children with disabilities should ONLY be permissible if and when children present as a danger to themselves or others and NOT as behavior modification or punishment. Also requires 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. 

Prohibiting dangerous conversion therapy: For the 5th year in a row, legislation that would prohibit licensed practitioners from practicing conversion therapy was filed and never scheduled. Legislation 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

Youth solitary confinement prohibition: 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.

Overcoming Barriers to Success

Legislative Progress Made 2019-2020:

Removal of $1 million lifetime medical cap from Children’s Medical Services: Florida moved back into federal compliance by removing the $1-million lifetime cap on medical services for children under the Florida KidCare Program. 

Achieving permanency for children in child welfare in one year: Removes barriers to achieving a stable, permanent placement for children in out-of-home care within a year. Permanency in a safe and stable placement bolsters the resilience of children and help them overcome the negative impacts from the trauma that brought them into out-of-home care. 

Training and communication for child welfare stakeholders: The tragic death of two year-old Jordan Belliveau in Pinellas County drew attention to many flaws in the child welfare system. The Florida Court Educational Council is required 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; requires the Department of Law Enforcement to provide information to officers on open child protection investigations; and requires officers to provide information to the child abuse hotline if having an interaction with the parent(s) or caregiver in an open case.

Child welfare oversight: The Department of Children and Families (DCF) will establish an Office of Quality to create and measure performance metrics and develop a statewide accountability system for community based care. DCF will implement policies and procedures to mitigate child protective investigator (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.

Child welfare administration: Clarifies the creation of early childhood circuit court programs. Supports the therapeutic needs of the parent and child and work of multidisciplinary teams and role of community coordinators. Requires instruction for dependency court judges on the benefits of stable placements and factors considered when determining whether to change a child’s placement. The Court and case managers will monitor relationships between foster parents and the biological parent(s) to encourage meaningful communication and mutual support. 

The voice of children in the child welfare system: Allows a Guardian ad Litem (GAL) to advocate in the best interest of more children by including those that are dually served in juvenile justice and child welfare and those aging out of the system. GALs can also petition to have the venue of court proceedings changed to reduce barriers faced by the child. 

Custody change in the best interest of the child: Allows 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. 

Adoption assistance expansion: Incentivizes temporary state employees and veterans or service members living in Florida to adopt a child from the state’s child welfare system. 

Progress Needed 2021-22

Eliminating fines and fees on children and dually involved youth up to age 21: In the past decade, the Florida Legislature has promoted children’s futures by removing roadblocks to jobs, education and vocational training, and safe housing. Eliminating fines and fees on children and dually involved youth up to age 21 will promote education, public safety and hope. Only 11% of these assessments – often totaling thousands of dollars per child – are collected. Saddling kids with debt is counterproductive and equates justice based on an ability to pay and leads to intergenerational poverty and other disparities.

Foster parent early education subsidies: Recruiting and retaining foster parents would be improved by providing an additional subsidy per month for the required placement of foster children in an early education or child care program. There has been a 13.2% increase in recent years in the number of children in out-of-home care. The average child care cost for ages 0-4 in Florida can range from $770- $607 per month. DCF reports foster parents receive $457 per month, per child up to age 5, and slots for free care and subsidies do exist, but are not always available to foster parents, forcing them to pay for care. 

Juvenile record expunction: Minors who have completed a diversion program for allowable felony offenses can petition to expunge, or remove, their nonjudicial arrest charges from public record.

Preventing needless child injuries to motor vehicle crashes: The Academy of Pediatrics recommends the use of booster seats in vehicles for children up to age 8. Florida’s requirement is currently through age 5. Advocates in Florida seek legislation raising the age to 6. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, booster use reduces the risk of serious injury by nearly half in children 4-8 years relative to seat belt use alone. 

Continuing the Conversation

Be on the lookout for upcoming publications from The Children’s Campaign and leaders in health and social services across the state, as well as special digital learning opportunities. We’ll be discussing the most pressing issues affecting children to include child welfare and child protection; Fines and Fees; special needs; the Girls Movement; maternal health and health care access; juvenile justice; early learning; and more. As always, we are available by email and phone (850-425-2600) to answer questions and provide verifiable facts. 

We also invite you to join Team Future, a growing movement of parents, grandparents, advocates, cross sector leaders, children’s coalitions and child-serving organizations who are using our collective power to tap into momentum for transformational change that is long overdue.