Capitol Report: 1st Week of Legislative Session – Will Children’s Needs Bridge Political Divide?

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Opening Remarks: Some Got It More Right Than Others

Florida Senate President Wilton Simpson hit the mark with his opening day remarks, choosing to speak eloquently and passionately about children. He made it clear it wasn’t just “his kids and grandkids” he was thinking about. He was inclusive about all children and their future, including those in early learning, in child welfare and foster care, special needs and those struggling. For both years of his presidency he has made children a banner headline. Few among his colleagues have been as consistent and focused.

In his remarks, he specifically mentioned that the “… costs of early childhood care are consistently identified as one of the biggest barriers for would-be foster families. We need to address the gap between what the Early Learning Coalition voucher pays and the actual cost of care.” This point is especially important because the out-of-pocket hit to foster families for state mandated child care is a barrier to recruiting new homes and retaining existing ones. Simpson deepened his explanation, saying, “… also, if a relative takes on the responsibility of child-rearing, they ought to receive the same support from the state as a foster family. The difference right now is about $200 a month per child. Similarly, the college tuition waiver has been an important tool for youth aging out of foster care. We need to make sure more children raised by their foster relatives have access to this important tool.”

House Speaker Sprowls, while not mentioning children directly, opened the door with an important challenge. He asked, “What are you willing to risk? That question lies at the heart of what we will do here in session for the next 60 days. When we legislate, we manage risk. We assess the danger of inaction.”

The American Children Campaign and its newly launched multipartisan Team Future collaboration believes the risk of not attending to the 16 hours each day a child is not in school, the risk of continuous exposure to adverse childhood experiences, the risks of a poorly financed and overwhelmed child service system, and inaction about historical issues of equity and institutionalized disproportionate treatment lead to huge future negative outcomes for generations of children and their families.

Speaker Sprowls showed that he understood the importance of managing risk to children and families in last year’s session, appropriating funds to draw down federal dollars to extend the duration of Healthy Start services for pregnant women. These same keen insights could apply to a range of unmet gaps and needs in the current session.

To help even more struggling children and families, it is important for their needs to not be caught in the political divide. Poll after poll, year after year, doing the right thing for children is a universal American value. It’s one of the few things upon which nearly everyone agrees. It’s not always easy to do in this political environment but needs to be done.

Will the Divide Overshadow Treatment of Unaccompanied Children?

Unaccompanied children have not been addressed as yet on a policy level by the Florida Legislature nor has the issue shown up in bills filed to date. Instead, there have been executive directives for several months, along with barbed exchanges between the Florida Governor and U.S. President. At stake is the protection and care for thousands of traumatized children.

Profiled through a recent story in the Miami Herald were Florida faith-based groups at the epicenter of protecting children. According to Catholic Charities CEO Peter Routis-Arroyo, the Bryan Walsh Children’s Village (aka Boys Town) has been housing unaccompanied children since the 1960’s, when they were sent by Cuban parents who feared the communist takeover. He said, “children who are arriving now are fleeing conditions very similar to that.” This is a good history lesson for all policymakers to remember.

HIS House, based in Miami Gardens, has served unaccompanied children since 2008 and is the largest foster group home in the state. Its executive director likened the feud to a “divorce” where children are caught in the middle. Silvia Smith-Torres explained “…the reality is that 85-90 percent of children have parents already in the United States who are working.” The goal is to find and reunite.

These perspectives shed light on the mischaracterizations pushed forward in more politically charged rhetoric. Existing directives are foreign to established legislative policy regarding the protection of children. Now that the legislature has convened, will it act to end the uncertainty about continued licensing of shelters and the humane treatment of children?

So Far, DJJ Priorities Appear to be the Same “Smaller Rocks”

Secretary Eric Hall assumed leadership of the Department of Juvenile Justice during the final weeks of pre-session committee hearings. Secretary Hall is by far the more experienced than both of his immediate predecessors, one appointed and one interim. His work history as the first Chancellor for Innovation and Senior Chancellor, appointed by Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran, could be put to good use in demanding quality educational opportunities in every juvenile justice setting. Children in these programs who spend anywhere from 6 months to 18 months (based on a range of factors) should be triaged and have their reading and grade levels advanced not by a bit but by a lot. That will take a concerted effort and speaks to the heart of risk management.

As was revealed through news reports, Secretary Eric Hall focused his doctoral dissertation on Critical Race Theory (CRT). He was appointed to his post by Florida Governor Ron DeSantis who in his session opening speech on January 11 referred to CRT as a divisive ideology. In reality, most Floridians do not know exactly what CRT means. If you ask 10 Florida citizens to describe it, you’re likely to receive 15 definitions.

Regardless of terminology, Hall is now head of a department with a long history of abusive practices to classes of children, especially along income and racial lines. Just a few years ago, Florida officials continued to deny systemic abuse existed as unmarked graves of dead kids were uncovered at a then closed “training school” in Northwest Florida. Violence continues to erupt in Florida’s detention centers where guards offer food incentives to entice kids to fight each other and girls are sexually molested. Girls of all ethnicities, but especially African Americans, face gender inequality in programming, probation revocation and punishment. Children of color are disproportionately represented at all phases of the justice system as they have for decades. And geographic absurdity exists in the issuance of civil citations where children based on location and not offense are treated unequally. Many end up with a juvenile record when their neighbor does not. The utilization differences of civil citation across boundaries and institutions are staggering.

In addition to creating educational opportunities, Hall lists his priorities as high turnover and retention of juvenile justice employees and data driven decision making. In a meeting with a north Florida sheriff he said he was willing to engage in the never-ending debate about a scoring instrument used to detain youth. The problem is returning children to communities without quality intervention and services whether from local detention or other facilities leads inevitably to recidivism and calls by law enforcement to lock them up. When only a hammer is offered as a tool, everything looks like a nail.

The public has a different view. Parents want something done about bullying, both in school and in the community; trafficking victims need recovery services and justice, not detention when their sexual abuse and victimization become known; re-entry programs and services long ago abandoned are needed as an alternative to DJJ returning kids back into the community to fall into the over-burdened child welfare system. Girls especially need mental health services based on their self-reports of depression and suicide ideation and factors that push them toward the ever downward spiral of the criminal justice system; and, yes, a public admission that race and income continue to be a factor in the non-use of civil citation, arrest and case disposition. Whether it’s called CRT or just old-fashioned racial bias, communities need assurances that DJJ will set high standards and expectations and go after the “big rocks” of gaps in programs and services and to cure historical ills.

Priority Bills Heard and Passed Out of Committee

SB 772, by Manny Diaz (R-Miami-Dade) is supported by human trafficking advocates and passed its first committee, Children Families, and Elder Affairs. Its principal requirement is the development of a Statewide Database Repository of victims served to be housed at the University of South Florida.

Senator Keith Perry’s (R-Gainesville) efforts to expunge juvenile records have made it through two committees without a vote against (SB 342). Minor changes have been made to his version, while the House bill, HB 195, sponsored by Representative David Smith (R-Winter Springs) is also moving but has amended to remove the ability to expunge any felony offense involving a firearm.

SB 912, by Jason Brodeur (R-Seminole) broadens the discussion about compensation of child welfare lead agency employees in the aftermath of a statewide Inspector General report. It sets upward pay scales inclusive of benefits and other perks. The bill passed Children, Families, and Elder Affairs.

SB 668, by Janet Cruz (D-Hillsborough) is supported widely by juvenile justice advocates, passed its first committee of reference, Criminal Justice. It defines more precisely the manner in which law enforcement questions children which often results in giving up their constitutional rights to self-incrimination.

A bill that would expand the work done to protect students with disabilities, HB 235 by Representative Plasencia (R-Titusville), passed its first committee Early Learning & Elementary Education. It removes the ability to use mechanical restraint on elementary students and limits the school staff that can use it on middle and high school students.

For a more complete listing of bills filed and their status, visit American Children’s Campaign’s Legislative Center.


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This Capitol Report is brought to you by Amanda Ostrander, Karen Bonsignori and Roy Miller