Capitol Report: Victories for Some Children But Not For Others (Yet)

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Another fallout from Manchin’s machinations.

Nine out of every 10 families can benefit from the child tax credit, but the inability of the U.S. Senate to extend it from pandemic relief to a permanent pre-tax fixture could have millions missing out.

There is no doubt that the expanded child tax credit reduced the number of children living in poverty by nearly 40%! There is no doubt that each household could receive up to $3,600 for each child under 6 years old, and up to $3,000 for each child between 6 and 17 years old. But rather than providing the credits in monthly increments, families are now required to wait until the “back end” and receive the credit or financial support after federal taxes are filed. And these filings must be done by April 18th.

This is the kind of policy born of political discord in the nation’s capital fanned by divisive power struggles. Families extending up through the top of the middle class are under more stress than ever with COVID-related illness, rising prices, home instability due to housing shortages and rising rents, and a load of other weight on their shoulders.

United States Senator Manchin wasn’t the only blocker. But he put himself in the limelight with negative comments and stereotypical characterizations. News organizations in West Virginia have fanned out and found family after family being hurt by the lack of front-end support. They fear losing their houses and are under constant duress to feed and clothe their children.

Advocates can’t fix this mess. All we can do is ask every citizen, business, community of faith, media outlet and literate American to reach out to those who may not realize that to get their full child tax credit, they must file their taxes by April 18. Spread the word.

Children Making Gains in Florida’s Proposed Budget

Florida Senate president Wilton Simpson has been a true champion for children, including those in the child welfare system, by making kids a priority is each of his statewide speeches for the past three years. This year is no different. The message has taken hold with more policymakers listening and jumping on board.

Simultaneous to the increase in unmet needs, labor shortages have crippled numerous systems of care for children. Child care centers have closed their doors. Beds in crisis centers have been reduced in number. Community-based supports have diminished and caseloads in certain sectors have skyrocketed.

Budget proposals in play push forward the hourly rate of state workers to $15 in advance of the Florida voter-approved constitutional mandate. This of course has a boomerang effect as workers leave the community sector for state jobs. Much testimony during the first five weeks of session has pointed to the crisis.

In some but not all cases, help is on the way. More on the progress in our next Capitol Report.

Foster and Relative Care

Following through on President Simpson’s commitment, for the first time in the Senate, the financial distinction between whether a child is placed in foster care or relative care will be narrowed. Relatives who choose to qualify as a Level One Home will receive a monthly stipend equal to foster families, and an overall cost of living adjustment will be added.

There’s more good news. After several years of often tearful testimony, foster parents and relative caregivers will receive assistance to narrow the gap between the true cost of child care (mandated by Florida law) and what the state will pay. Many families choose not to foster or provide relative care due to the high out-of-pocket costs. This subsidy is a big step forward.

The Most Traumatized Children in the Dependency System Hanging in the Balance

The Senate plan replaces $32 million in lost federal funds due to the Family First Prevention Services Act and its many Florida un-friendly provisions, and allocates $20 million of the $35 million requested by the community-based care lead agencies struggling with increased caseloads due to record numbers of home removals. However, with the latter, there appears to be a distinction: the $20 million could be divided at present among only four of the lead agencies, serving parts of Southwest Florida, Northeast Florida, the Suncoast (Pinellas-Pasco) and Sarasota. It is unclear as to the rationale at the time of this report.

In the House budget plan, a proposed increase of $127.5 million will bring every lead agency up to a pre-determined level, an unprecedented appropriation, possibly leaving only Miami-Dade with an increased per capita funding level.

American Children’s Campaign supports the passage of the best of both budgets!

Curiously, sex trafficking funds in the first round are not as auspicious. For many organizations, the proposed allocations are not only below current appropriations, but also remain in “non-recurring dollars,” earmarked as a “member project.” This leaves organizations to scratch out equity in the budget reconciliation process in the final days of session.

At stake are services to the most traumatized children in child welfare. This is an annual problem that needs correction with recurring funds stretched across the Department of Children & Families and Office of Attorney General where most of the projects are located. There is nothing “non-recurring” about sex trafficking and survivors require trauma-competent crisis intervention and prolonged support to overcome the physical and psychological damage.

More Victories Possible

The Guardian ad Litem program received the same level of appropriations in both the Senate and House, allowing growth to provide representation to every child in dependency court. This long-time goal is coming within reach.

In Early Learning, specifically Florida’s VPK program, a multi-year plan that would depend on future budget writers to continue the momentum, $392 million in the Senate added over three-years would raise VPK per-child funding to $3,294 from its present level of $2,486. This comes at a time when child care centers, inclusive of VPK, are under enormous stress not only in Florida but across the country.

Sessions Receives Lawton Chiles Award

At the Children’s Week annual banquet, Doug Sessions, long-time head of the Ounce of Prevention Fund, which houses Healthy Families and Prevent Children Abuse, among other initiatives, received the Lawton Chiles Award for Advocate of the Year. Congratulations, Doug.

The Long Journey to Protecting Special Needs Students

After session last year, American Children’s Campaign extended Superhero Awards to Senator Book (D-Plantation) and Representative DuBose (D-Ft Lauderdale) for the successful passage of a bill prohibiting seclusion and reducing mechanical restraints in special needs classrooms – reform that took nearly 10 years to accomplish. This year, Representative Plasencia (R-Titusville) and Senator Book (D – Plantation) have teamed up to make the legislation even stronger. The identical bills prohibit the use of mechanical restraints except by certain specified school safety officers. The House bill is in second reading on the House floor. The Senate bill has passed one committee. Not a single dissenting vote has been made thus far. American Children’s Campaign strongly endorses this bill, building on the success of last year.

Staffing Shortages at Youth Shelters Could Hurt At-Risk Children

A statewide network of youth crisis shelters has been forced to limit services due to staffing shortages. According to the Florida Network of Youth and Family Services, these programs serve about 15,000 children and families in crisis each year. Most of these children are ready to run away or engage in other risky behavior. Some are abused and neglected. Most have behavioral or mental health problems. Many are homeless.

Direct care staff at these shelters earn an average of $11 per hour and many are leaving the field for better pay and less stressful jobs. For these programs to stay whole, Governor DeSantis has included pay increases to shelter staff in his budget recommendation. This is a good move. American Children’s Campaign urges the legislature to fund increases for staff salaries, so no family in crisis is turned away when they need help the most. This problem is recurrent in other systems of care as well and needs attention.

Bills Heard Since Our Last Capitol Report

Bills that would allow for the expungement of juvenile’s record if they were sentenced to a diversion program, with exceptions, continue to move quickly through the process. HB 195 and its companion public record bill HB 197 by Representative Smith (R-Winter Springs) are on second reading in the House. Senator Perry’s version, SB 342 and public record companion SB 344 are on the agenda in their final committee, Appropriations. This measure passed last year unanimously and faced a surprise veto from Governor DeSantis.

SB 688 by Senator Cruz (D-Tampa), a bill that would not allow confessions of juveniles to be used against them if they were obtained through deception, is in its final committee of reference, Rules. The House companion, HB 109 by Representative McCurdy (D-Orlando) has yet to be heard.

A bill that would allow victims of certain crimes including, human trafficking, child abuse and neglect, domestic violence and sexual battery, to bring their abusers to justice with less emotional strain, by placing them in the vulnerable victims and witnesses category, SB 772 by Senator Diaz (R-Hialeah Gardens) is in its final committee of reference, Rules. The bill does not have a companion.

Bills that are addressing the unintended consequences of last session’s parental rights bills, HB 817 by Representative Massullo (R-Beverly Hills) and SB 1114 by Senator Bradley (R-Orange Park) are moving quickly through the process. These bills would allow a doctor to treat a child in an emergency situation outside of the hospital without a parent’s consent. HB 817 is on 2nd reading in the House, and SB 1114 is on the agenda in Health Policy, its second committee of reference.

HB 1577 by Representative Woodsen (D-Hialeah Gardens) and SB 1708 by Senator Garcia (R-Miami) would make it easier for homeless youth to attend college through tuition and fee waivers, support in colleges for students facing these specific challenges, and ease of access to records. Both HB 1577 and SB 1708 are in their final committee of reference, Health & Human Services and Appropriations.

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