Miami Herald | EDITORIAL

Make the investment


OUR OPINION: Lawmakers cannot reform DCF on the cheap

Florida legislators have gotten off the dime and are coming up with one idea after another and another to force the Department of Children & Families to take far better care of kids in grave danger of being abused — or killed. Now, are they going to come up with the money it’s going to take to make dysfunctional families whole?

With the portraits of some of the 477 children who died while in DCF care staring lawmakers in the face — featured in the Miami Herald’s series, Innocents Lost — proposals to reform the agency are moving through the state Senate and the House, proposals that might have never seen the light of day had lawmakers not been shaken and, presumably, shamed by the brutal reality with which too many children live — and die — in this state.

Commend the House for seeking to impose more-specific and resolute wording to DCF’s “safety plans:” “If impending danger is identified, the child protective investigator shall create and implement a safety plan as soon as necessary to protect the safety of the child.” This makes it clear to DCF that the child’s well-being — indeed, the child’s very life — will take precedence over its policy of family preservation. Unfortunately, preservation was so narrowly defined as to mean that children who were clearly in peril of being seriously hurt by the dysfunctional, incapable adults, were left in their “care,” with tragic consequences.

Then this: “A safety plan may not rely on promissory commitments by the parent, caregiver, or legal custodian who is currently not able to protect the child or on services that will not result in safety.” It shouldn’t be necessary to spell out that drug-addicted or neglectful parents might promise anything to get the agency off their backs. Unfortunately, DCF took some caregivers at their word.

Now the question is, Will these suddenly concerned lawmakers manage to find the big bucks needed to really make a difference in the lives of children living with violent, drug-addicted, mentally ill or neglectful parents and caretakers?

Service providers told legislators last week that this is vitally needed. But it’s clear that lawmakers were still reluctant to put the millions of dollars into the reforms that would make a long-lasting and measurable difference.

It’s not a matter of throwing money at a problem to make it go away. That’s not a solution, it’s just a recipe for a more-costly failure. Rather, it is imperative that new funding — far more than is currently being considered — must be wisely targeted to providing the kinds of remedial services that will actually make troubled families whole again.

Remember, DCF gets called not because a child is the problem, but because the adults in their lives are the problem. And while Gov. Scott and lawmakers crow that they’ve proposed a budget increase for DCF — they really haven’t — little will improve if reforms don’t include funding for substance-abuse treatment for addicted parents; anger-management classes for a mom’s violent live-in boyfriend; mental-health services for depressed caretakers and parenting classes for the neglectful — and all backed up by court orders. And the state is bereft of adequate services for kids with disabilities or early learning programs.

But instead of creating as seamless a family preservation — and reunification — process as possible, the state has steadily whittled away funding for these services, misguided actions that undercut the very thing lawmakers now lament.

Senate President Don Gaetz said it would take “tens of millions” of dollars to implement meaningful reforms. Nixing some of the $500 million in tax cuts that lawmakers and the governor plan is the smartest place to start. Whose life will a sales-tax holiday save?

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