State Rep. Spencer Roach doesn’t want kids bouncing around the child welfare system longer than can be helped.
The North Fort Myers Republican has filed a bill (HB 421) aiming to ensure children removed from their parents by the Department of Children and Families get placed with family or into a permanent home within 12 months.
“A year is a long time in the life of a child,” Roach said.
The new lawmaker’s legislation is his first filed since being elected in November. He replaced Republican Matt Caldwell, who unsuccessfully ran for Agriculture Commissioner last year, in House District 79.
The bill’s passage would fulfill a campaign promise but also address a problem near to his heart.
Roach in his personal time has volunteered as a guardian ad litem, an advocate for children in disputes between families and the state. The job requires monthly visits and communication with courts over the children’s best interests.
For the past 18 months, he has served as a guardian for two children in Florida’s 2oth Judicial Circuit. That’s shown him up close the effect delays in the system have on children.
His experiences led Roach to seek a spot on the low-profile Children, Families and Seniors Subcommittee in the House.
Roach said the top priority of his bill will be putting pressure on guardians to meet their responsibilities in a timely fashion. “It puts parents on notice,” he said.
And the priority for the state, whenever possible, should be putting children back in their original homes, Roach said.
But in cases where that can’t happen, such as a parent’s incarceration or continued abuses, the state needs to move quickly to get children in a long-term foster home or adopted by a new family.
“Sometimes children are languishing in the system for well over a year — maybe as long as three years,” he said. “They can go to close to a dozen homes or more in that time.”
But in addition to accountability for parents, the bill also puts requirements on judges and court officials. Right now, judges have discretion to delay various legal actions, but the bill would require a break of no more than 60 days between status hearings.
The bill also requires plain language updates and every effort to engage parents, many of whom may navigate the system slowly simply because they get intimidated by the bureaucracy.