Last year was a big year for Florida foster children and those kids who suffer physical harm, sexual abuse, neglect or injury in the child welfare system. Child advocates and foster child attorneys who fight for those vulnerable children watched as the Florida Legislature passed child welfare reforms, funding measures and protections designed to help kids – and push the Florida Department of Children and Families to put even more protections in place.
As we saw in the past year, the measures were laudable, but with the benefit of hindsight, they could use strengthening.
Much of the action came after a Miami Herald investigative series, Innocents Lost, found that 477 children known to be at risk by the Florida Department of Children and Families nonetheless died. Legislators reeled, and passed funding a measure to hire almost 200 child-protective investigators and field a Critical Incident Rapid Response Team to react and report on horrific cases of child abuse or death. The team’s most recent action came in the wake of the death of Phoebe Jonchuck, the 5-year-old girl allegedly tossed to into Tampa Bay by her father, even after two calls came to the state child abuse hotline warning of potential harm.
That came after six children and their mother were shot and killed by Donald Spirit, the grandfather and patriarch, ending eight lives beset by poverty, hunger and child abuse – issues well known to child welfare officials.
Legislators also tightened DCF transparency requirements. In response, DCF has reversed course on its practice of reporting on child fatalities and has posted six years of such data on its website. The new legislation also created a policy research branch, the Florida Institute for Child Welfare.
This year, as with last, legislators are committed to make improvements and continue on their path of improving the system. Just a few weeks ago, legislators held meetings regarding lessons learned from the Spirit and Jonchuck cases. Next month, a panel will hold a hearing on mental-health and substance-abuse issues. Behavioral health care also is on the agenda.
Child advocates and attorneys who fight to protect children from physical harm, sexual abuse, even deadly act will watch closely for what the Florida Legislature addresses this session. Last year’s session was full of strong reforms. We’re hopeful this year will follow suit on the path to protecting vulnerable children.