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DCF accountability bill clears first Senate committee

DCF is overstressed. This bill seeks to help.

A priority bill of the Senate President-designate unanimously cleared its first committee of reference, even as the legislation’s advocates and supporters conceded it’s a work in progress.

 SB 1326 (“the DCF Accountability Act”) was OK’d by Children, Families, and Elder Affairs on Tuesday morning.

Next stops: the Appropriations Subcommittee on Health and Human Services, followed by the full Appropriations Committee.

Sen. Wilton Simpson bill’s goal is to bring “accountability” over the course of four years of implementation to the Department of Children and Families.

With DCF moving toward a “prevention” model, the bill would create the Office of Quality Assurance and Improvement within the organization, shoring up foster care and adoption services.

“One office in the agency that focuses on child welfare and behavioral programs,” Simpson said.

Secretary Chad Poppell would appoint a Chief Quality Officer, who would monitor performance standards, with the goal being “exemplary services” and “direct accountability for quality assurance” in child welfare.

Poppell backs the legislation, saying it would allow DCF to improve oversight over this silo.

“This is a broad expansion of quality assurance beyond the child welfare side,” the secretary said.

Poppell noted that the bill also would allow for a better understanding of appropriate funding for providers.

The Secretary, who envisions this as the beginning of four years of systemic improvements, noted that just under 5% of cases currently are being audited, “the issues that don’t go well.”

“The system sometimes fails,” Poppell said. “This should not be the primary responsibility of providers … (it) should be a core function of DCF.”

Annual reporting would be required, predicated on performance metrics. Providers that fall below expectations are expected to be monitored, and corrective action provided.

The bill also changes some parameters for investigations of child abuse cases, allowing investigations to commence in “24 or 72” hours, a switch from the current 24. The extra time is permissible in cases where the abuse was from a month or more ago, or when reasonable expectations are that the abuser won’t have access to the child.

However, human trafficking and sexual abuse investigations are more time-sensitive and have a 24-hour window for commencement. The same holds true when the abuse victim is less than a year old.

While investigation visits can remain unannounced, preventive services visits now must be scheduled.

Alan Abramowitz, of the Guardian Ad Litem program backed the bill.

As did Dr. Chris Card, representing Eckerd Connects, DCFs CBC Partner in Pasco, Pinellas and Hillsborough Counties, who advocated for the bill, even as he said “it’s not perfect.”

Card has 40 years of experience in the child welfare system, and lauded this bill and DCF for “bold standards and high expectations.”

“The bill will change our system … to significantly improve the safety, permanency and well being of all of our children,” Card said, going on to describe how the legislation would help to make manageable caseloads for “overstressed” case managers.

Card also noted, “Pinellas county has hundreds more children and families requiring services but has millions less; as the most striking comparison Pinellas/Pasco has 1,400 more children in in-home and out of home care than Miami yet receives $28 million less in funding due to the current antiquated funding model.”

Republican Sen. Gayle Harrell stressed the importance of bringing resources to the “local” level, noting that prevention services present further room for improvement not contemplated in the bill.

Sen. Vic Torres, an Orlando Democrat, lauded the changes suggested in the bill.

Republican Sen. Aaron Bean, meanwhile, lauded the grading in the bill as something “everybody understands”

Simpson, closing before the committee vote, said “transparency and accountability” will help to improve DCF going forward.

The bill has yet to be filed in the House. Earlier indications were that Rep. Josie Tomkow would carry it.

Written By

A.G. Gancarski has been a working journalist for over two decades. Gancarski has been a correspondent for FloridaPolitics.com since 2014. In 2018, he was a finalist for an Association of Alternative Newsweeklies "best political column." He can be reached at a.g.gancarski@gmail.com.

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