House, Senate settle on $47 million in new money for child welfare


Herald/Times Tallahassee Bureau

With breakneck speed, House and Senate budget negotiators met Tuesday and agreed to $47.8 million in new money for child welfare, far below what child advocates had hoped for but with more money for treatment services than either chamber had originally sought.

The proposal also gives the governor only about $21 million of the $39 million he had asked for to expand child protection services.

The agreement may be only preliminary, said Senate President Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, who said budget negotiators may find additional funds for child welfare programs as they work to finish their $75 billion budget this week.

“It isn’t the final final until it’s on the floor,’’ he said, adding that as the House and Senate continue to work on a bill to overhaul the child welfare laws there may be additional funds.

The Senate Appropriations Committee unanimously passed a rewrite of the Senate’s proposal (SB 1666) to bring more accountability to the agency and more professionalism to the way child abuse investigations are handled. A similar bill passed its last committee in the House on Monday.

The budget agreement, reached by House and Senate Health and Human Services Appropriations Committees, allocates $13 million to hire 191 additional child protective investigators, who respond to child abuse complaints received by the state’s hotline.

Increasing the number of investigators, or “boots on the ground,” is the top priority of Gov. Rick Scott, who made the proposal after the Miami Herald revealed that more than 40 children who were known to the Florida Department of Children and Families had died last summer because of abuse and neglect.

Scott initially asked for $31 million to hire more child protective investigators for DCF and another $8 million for the sheriffs’ offices that contract with the state.

Senate HHS Appropriations Chairwoman Denise Grimsley, R-Sebring, said that legislators were not convinced that the state needed 400 additional investigators, as the governor requested, and instead wanted to direct money into programs that treat the root causes of abuse.

The governor announced his proposal in January and never modified his request to seek additional money for treatment services, even after the Miami Herald published “Innocents Lost ,” a series of stories in March that showed 80 percent of the 477 children who died of abuse and neglect in the last six years were to families whose parents were suffering from mental health and substance abuse problems.

“I was trying to make sure we had meaningful policy,’’ Grimsley said.

To that end, legislators agreed to spend $5 million for a pilot program to target at-risk families with young children whose child abuse stems from substance abuse in a small number of high-risk counties, including Hillsborough, Polk and Brevard.

The funding is also a shift from where the House and Senate started and a reflection of the pleas by child advocates to shift more money into services that could make the most difference in changing family behavior.

Child advocates also asked for $25.4 million to allow the privately run local agencies that manage the cases of at-risk kids to hire more case workers as additional children are brought into the system by the new child protection investigators.

DCF Secretary Esther Jacobo said she hoped the House and Senate would find additional money to fund a program to allow the agency to allow two investigators to team up when dealing with the more at-risk kids. The governor recommended spending nearly $16 million for that program and legislators didn’t fund it.

“So I’m hopeful that it’s not quite over yet,’’ she said.

Child advocates warned that funding for the treatment services for the state’s child welfare system is lower this year than at any time since 2007, while caseloads have grown during the period. They feared the governor’s plan would do a better job of keeping a tally of the at-risk kids but would do little to get at the root causes that led to the abuse in the dysfunctional families.

“It’s not just about identifying the kids at risk,’’ said Victoria Vangalis Zepp, lobbyist for the Florida Coalition for Children. “It’s about doing something about it.”

The legislative agreement also allocates $10 million in new money to go to the Community-Based-Care organizations to divide between 19 local service providers. This is a net increase of $4.6 million because their initial budgets had been reduced by $5.4 million from the previous year.

“This will help fill some of the gaps, but where are the prevention dollars?’’ Vangalis Zepp said.

The budget will also include money for data analytics to assist the child protective investigators to help them rank their case load from high risk to low risk, to help them better focus their attention on the highest-risk cases.

Other details in the House and Senate child welfare budget plan:

• $5 million for expansion of the Healthy Families program;

• $8 million for select sheriff’s departments that handle investigations of child abuse, the same amount requested by the governor;

• $3 million on human trafficking;

• $1 million for a university-based partnership with DCF;

• $2.5 million for loan-forgiveness and tuition repayments for DCF investigators who seek degrees in social work.

Mary Ellen Klas can be reached at meklas@MiamiHerald.com and @MaryEllenKlas

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