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House committee: overhaul of child welfare system will be focus

Florida’s child welfare system needs an overhaul, and repairing the cracks that allowed more than 20 children to die this summer will be the focus of legislation next spring, the head of the oversight committee of the Florida House of Representatives said Tuesday.

”I’m looking for concrete ideas, solutions,’’ Rep. Gayle Harrell, R-Stuart, told the House Healthy Families Subcommittee at the conclusion of what will be the first of several hearings on the issue. “Let’s take this on as a major challenge this year.”

Since mid-April, at least 20 children known to the Department of Children & Families have died, mostly from abuse or neglect, some of them in particularly brutal ways, a review of state files by the Miami Herald found.

After four children died over a stretch of six weeks, DCF Secretary David Wilkins resigned and was replaced by interim secretary Esther Jacobo.

Harrell said the goal is to find ways to “change the culture” of the child welfare system as well as examine the need for additional funding and eliminate the counterproductive laws that “create bottlenecks.”

Harrell’s counterpart in the Senate, state Sen. Eleanor Sobel, a Hollywood Democrat, who conducted a legislative hearing on the child deaths in Broward County in August, is also expected to pursue legislation during the regular session that begins in March.

Jacobo, who had previously been DCF’s regional director in Miami-Dade County, told the House committee Tuesday that she has embarked on a sweeping change in the way the agency handles abuse cases. The goal is to shift from an incident-driven review of reported threats to children to one that provides a comprehensive assessment of a family’s needs and gets them immediate assistance.

In the department’s review of the recent child deaths, she said they have found a recurring theme: “There are chronic issues that we’re not addressing that may leave a bad result later on.” Story here.