Florida makes progress in caring for troubled kids

Every day, the most vulnerable children in our communities rely on the state’s child-protection system to make decisions and investments that will positively change the course of their lives. For some, these decisions can mean the difference between life and death — literally. During the past several months, the Legislature has focused significant attention on child welfare reform and, just recently, Gov. Rick Scott signed into law Senate Bill 1666, a critical starting point as we work toward improving this vital system of care.

We applaud lawmakers and Gov. Scott for prioritizing child welfare and approving a budget that allocates an additional $38.8 million to protect and help Florida’s at-risk children.

While the $21 million designated for hiring additional child-protective investigators and the $2.8 million for Child Protection Teams are both worthwhile investments, the Legislature also recognized the importance of life-changing services provided by case-management organizations.

Florida’s 2014 budget earmarked $10 million for these organizations to invest in programs that help families work through complicated challenges and to invest in the retention of case managers, which is proven to directly correlate with better outcomes for children.

This must be a continued, prioritized investment as the demand for such services and for qualified, experienced child-welfare professionals will only increase.

Moreover, the recently signed SB 1666 calls for key changes within the child-welfare system with a goal of improving accountability and outcomes.

Of particular importance is the added weight given to safety plans that the Department of Children & Families (DCF) has relied upon for years. Before this bill, parents could write and sign their own plans and the case could be closed.

Sadly, without DCF oversight, some children suffered the ultimate consequence of a tragic death. Now, child-protective investigators — not parents — are responsible for developing safety plans and, once in place, the case must remain opened.

If parents fail to comply and jeopardize their children’s safety, the children can be brought into care while family members receive services to work through their challenges.

This is certainly a step in the right direction. As more children and families are referred for services, however, we must ensure that funding and legislation align with the need for quality care.

A key driver of such quality is the retention of a stable, experienced workforce. SB 1666 recognizes this and allows child-welfare professionals to receive tuition exemption or loan forgiveness when they pursue degrees in social work and remain in the child-welfare field for at least five years. This investment has the potential to produce a stronger, more balanced child-protection system with experienced professionals who possess the skills to help children and families struggling with severe and complicated challenges.

While SB 1666 is a good first step toward the quantum change needed to best serve children and families, it still falls short of fully prioritizing child safety and well-being. For instance, more must be done when it comes to making decisions in the best interests of a child, particularly when it comes to pursuing the termination of parental rights. The child-welfare system and judiciary must be able to consider a parent’s comprehensive history, including past DCF involvement and previous terminations, whether voluntary or involuntary.

Moreover, when the goal for a child is reunification, legislation must allow DCF and the courts to consider any factor that would shed light on the parent’s ability to care for that child.

While Florida’s child-welfare system is moving in the right direction, much work remains. We must never lose sight of our responsibility to provide for the safety and well-being of our state’s most vulnerable children.

Shelley Katz is chairwoman for the Florida Coalition for Children and chief operating officer of Children’s Home Society of Florida.

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