- Associated Press - Friday, April 25, 2014

MIAMI (AP) - The Senate passed a sweeping bill seeking to overhaul the child welfare system Friday by adding more than $47 million for services including hiring nearly 200 new investigators and placing an emphasis on child safety above family reunification.

Senate bill 1666, which passed 37-0, comes as the Department of Children and Families has been under intense scrutiny after dozens of child-abuse related deaths.

Senators pushed through more than a dozen late filed amendments Friday to bring their bill in line with a companion bill in the House. The amendments addressed everything from keeping siblings together in foster homes whenever possible to requiring DCF to post child death information on their website in an effort to improve transparency and placing a preference on putting children in foster homes instead of group homes and institutions.

Sen. Eleanor Sobel, D-Hollywood, said the string of child deaths has been a wake-up call for lawmakers.

“No rock was left unturned. We tried to reform the system the best we could in the time that we had,” she said.

One of the most important changes addressed a critical issue that advocates warned has impeded child safety.

For several years, DCF has placed a premium on putting fewer children in foster care and, instead, offering family services while the child remains at home. Experts say there are gaps in those services and lax enforcement, usually nothing more than a verbal agreement from a parent to stay away from an abusive spouse, attend parenting classes or to quit drugs.

But a new amendment stressed that safety plans can no longer rely on verbal promises from parents.

Earlier this week, House and Senate Health and Human Services Appropriations conference committees approved $13 million to hire nearly 200 new child protective investigators in hopes of reducing caseloads and high turnover. It’s much less than what Gov. Scott proposed. The bill also seeks to professionalize the workforce, employing higher caliber staff with experience in social work.

The proposal also carves out $5 million for at-risk families with young children who need substance abuse treatment after advocates complained the lawmakers had overlooked funding to treat mental health and substance abuse problems that are at the root of most child deaths.

Lawmakers also approved an $8 million increase for sheriff’s offices handling abuse cases, which Scott had requested and roughly $10 million For DCF’s foster care contractors for services including hiring more caseworkers to deal with the influx of new foster kids.

“It’s not nirvana, it’s not all that we can do, it’s not all that we will do, but it’s far more than we’ve ever done,” Senate President Don Gaetz said.

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