By Carol Marbin Miller
Gov. Rick Scott signed into law Monday a sweeping overhaul of Florida's long-troubled child welfare agency, discarding a decade-old policy that favored the rights of parents over those of neglected and abused children -- even as hundreds of infants and toddlers died gruesome and preventable deaths.
The measure, approved unanimously by the Florida Legislature in May, contains major changes to virtually every facet of Florida child protection policy, and is designed to stanch what had become an epidemic of deaths, particularly among the very young. The new law was written in response to a series of stories in the Miami Herald, called Innocents Lost, that detailed the deaths of 477 children whose families had been known to the state.
The new law is significant, children's advocates say, as much for what it says as what it does: Lawmakers said explicitly that state child welfare administrators can no longer place the rights and wishes of parents above the safety of their children. For a decade, the Department of Children & Families had followed a "family preservation" policy that sometimes left small children in danger, especially when their parents fought violently or had untreated drug addictions.
"This is a sea change for Florida," said Fran Allegra, who oversaw the state's largest private foster care agency, Our Kids of Miami, until earlier this year. "The law now says the welfare of the child is most important. Somewhere along the line, the rights of children to be safe and protected became less important than parents' rights to custody of the child."
State Sen. Denise Grimsley, a Sebring Republican who chairs the Appropriations Subcommittee on Health and Human Services and helped draft the law, said she hopes the measure will give the department the authority and the resources to take decisive action when troubled, drug-addled or violent parents refuse help or supervision from the state.
Grimsley said she read several documents recently relating to the July 7, 2012, death of 9-month-old Milo Rupert in Highlands County, where she lives. Milo's death, due to starvation, was highlighted in the Herald series, and many of the records were provided on the newspaper's website.
In three DCF investigations in 2010 and 2011, investigators had been told that Milo and his siblings were malnourished, left unsupervised, and surrounded by so many cockroaches that the bugs filled their beds and diapers. Investigators offered the family free child-care, which the parents rejected, and did little else. "Had the children been in child-care, someone would have picked up on what was going on," said Grimsley, a nurse. "I believe that Milo Rupert would still be alive."
Just last week, Milo's mother, Sandra Jackson, was convicted of aggravated manslaughter of a child and three counts of neglect. Her husband, Kyle Rupert, had earlier pleaded guilty and was sentenced to 24 years in prison.
"The largest piece of the law," Grimsley said, "is that now the department has received our legislative intent, the direction we want them to go. We want to see more transparency, and more attention paid to child deaths -- ultimately reducing them."
Among other things, the law creates a new assistant secretary for child welfare at DCF, develops a "Critical Incident Rapid Response Team" to hasten the investigation of child deaths in families known to DCF, and overhauls the state's use of "safety plans" that often were no more than unenforceable promises to be better parents.
The law "codifies that the foremost goal of the department is to protect the best interest of children," Scott said in a prepared statement.
The legislation aims to upgrade DCF's workforce -- long beset by low pay, and high caseloads and turnover -- by bolstering the training and expertise of front-line investigators, who had been criticized in hearings as sometimes lacking in skepticism and critical thinking. The law creates an incentive for job-seekers with social work and other advanced degrees to join DCF by providing tuition reimbursement.
It requires DCF to improve investigations involving children with either severe disabilities or complex medical needs, a category of youngsters at greatest peril. The Herald found that 85 children with disabilities died after either they or a sibling had been the subject of a DCF report, and a recent report said physically disabled Florida children are 17 times more likely to die from abuse or neglect than their typically developing peers.
The law also requires DCF to identify children with developmental disabilities and provide services to reduce the risk such children face if left with troubled parents.
When the agency fails those under its oversight, the law requires DCF to be more open to outside scrutiny. One provision requires the agency to list on its website all abuse or neglect deaths of children 5 and under, and to contract with a university-based think tank to oversee the examinations of their deaths.
Interim DCF Secretary Mike Carroll, who was appointed by Scott just as the legislative session ended, said the main elements of the law will be put in place by July 1. "We have been working on an implementation plan for well over a month," Carroll said. "We think we are in a good place."
In addition to the many changes in DCF policy and practice, the new law brings an infusion of dollars -- $44.5 million by some estimates. The state's spending plan for the next budget year will allow DCF to hire new child abuse investigators, to further implement a program that pairs investigators in particularly high-risk or complex cases, and to roll out a more sophisticated drug treatment program for parents whose addictions are a danger to their children, Carroll said.
"I think this is a big step forward for us," Carroll said. "We certainly will welcome the resources."
In a prepared statement, Scott said the measure will strengthen the state's safety net for children, and increase spending "to protect children from abuse and neglect."
"As a father and a grandfather, the safety of Florida's children is a top priority," Scott said. "That's why this session we succeeded in creating 270 additional child protective investigators, so we can decrease caseloads and provide our servants in the field the support they need to ensure we're doing everything possible to protect our children.
"We have to do everything we can to protect our children from abuse and neglect, and these reforms and targeted investments will better enable our child welfare servants to do their job," the governor added.
Some children's advocates warn that the measure did not go far enough, however, especially when it comes to money.
Though DCF will be able to hire the additional investigators, private foster care agencies will see a far more modest increase in spending. The so-called community-based care providers -- Florida was the first state in the nation to fully privatize foster care and adoption -- had pleaded with lawmakers for more money, but were largely rebuffed. .
"The Legislature has made the safety of children paramount," said Kurt Kelly, a former lawmaker who heads the Florida Coalition for Children, an association of private foster care agencies. "This is a step in the right direction. But we must ensure that future legislatures are working to provide the right resources to keep us moving forward."
Sen. Eleanor Sobel, a Hollywood Democrat who chairs the Children, Families and Elder Affairs Committee and helped draft the measure, said that, although the law will do much to better protect Florida's children, she remains concerned that DCF remains resistant to scrutiny and criticism. Sobel declared a "cover-up" the results of a recent investigation into DCF's failure to file incident reports on 30 child deaths in the state's Southeast Region. The investigation produced no documents, making it impossible to review its findings.
"I'm choked about the bill. It was a heavy lift, and a lot of change needed to be made," Sobel said. "This kind of change happens once in a decade."
Sobel said DCF administrators have pledged to improve agency openness, but continue to shield records from public scrutiny, contrary to the stated intent of the bill Scott signed Monday. "Lip service is not enough," she said. "We need to see action.
"Reporting child deaths on their website was our idea, our legislation. It was the Legislature's idea to send a clear message that we want transparency and accountability -- that we want to find out about these innocent children."
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