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Advocates raise new doubts about House child safety overhaul

Children’s advocates showed the first sign Monday that they might not support the Florida House’s sweeping rewrite of the state’s child-welfare laws, saying the proposal may produce only superficial reforms and not result in substantial changes that protect children.

“It’s going to do a job of better documenting societal issues, and I don’t think it’s going to change a thing,” said Mike Watkins, chief executive of the Big Bend Community Based Care organization after the House Appropriations Committee unanimously approved HB 7169.

The bill would increase the professional requirements of investigators in charge of responding to complaints from the state’s child-abuse hotline by requiring most staff to have social work or other professional degrees, and it would require more transparency from the state Department of Children & Families about child deaths.

The House and Senate have allocated up to about $45 million in additional money to address the issue, much of it devoted to increasing the number of DCF child-protective investigators. Families are then referred to local community-service organizations where they are assigned to a case worker for follow-up attention.

Watkins said that while child-protective investigators are fact-finders, and case managers are “scorekeepers on how parents and their kids are doing,” it is the treatment programs — from mental health to substance abuse — that result in meaningful behavioral change for the troubled families. The legislative reforms are silent about those services, and no additional money is being allocated for them, he said.

The governor’s proposal to spend $40 million to add 400 investigators was written before the Miami Herald’s report, Innocents Lost, came out and child advocates said Monday that the legislature’s adherence the to governor’s proposal, and refusal to modify in light of the findings, is short-sighted.

“It’s not better score-keeping” that will fix the problem, Watkins said. “It’s a matter of changing behavior for children of Florida.”

Rep. Gayle Harrell, R-Stuart, the sponsor of the bill, acknowledged that the bill was not perfect. More here.