A priority bill of First Lady Casey DeSantis is heading to Gov. Ron DeSantis’ desk.
Representatives gave final approval to Senate President-Designate Wilton Simpson’s bill (SB 1326) Wednesday. The legislation aims to bring accountability over the next four years to the Department of Children and Families (DCF).
It would appropriate more than $5.3 million to the Department of Children and Families for the next fiscal year to implement some of the bill’s provisions. The total recurring cost of the bill is nearly $40 million.
Destin Republican Rep. Mel Ponder, who helped shepherd the bill through the House, thanked Simpson, the First Family and others for bringing the legislation together. Building it with interested parties helped create legislation he said would create an environment to support welfare workers.
“We will coach you, mentor you, all through your career learning path, an opportunity so you can grow yet also fear protected, for while you’re in your spot, we will be there to keep our arms wrapped around you to keep you running the race,” Ponder said.
Senators passed the measure 39-0 Monday.
Republicans and Democrats lauded the measure for greater oversight and accountability.
“Nothing more precious than the health and well-being of our children,” Orlando Democratic Rep. Anna Eskamani said.
It would set up pilot programs in the Sixth District, which includes Pinellas and Pasco counties and 13th Judicial District, covering Hillsborough County. The lead agencies in those districts could receive incentive funding if they meet expectations.
There have been problems in those areas. Subcontractor Directions for Living was faulted in the 2018 deaths of an 11-year boy and a 2-year-old Jordan Belliveau whose mother was charged with his murder.
Belliveau’s death is thought to have been preventable as child welfare professionals missed several red-flags that could have removed him from his parents’ care. It would give those pilots about $8.2 million.
“Some may say this legislation is not prescriptive enough,” said Rep. Chris Latvala. “I would say that we have achieved the right balance by not dictating from dictating from Tallahassee, but allowing DCF and the providers the latitude to rebuild the foster care system in a way that works best for the Bay Area.”
With DCF moving toward a “prevention” model, the bill would spend nearly $3 million to create the Office of Quality Assurance and Improvement within the organization, shoring up foster care and adoption services. The office would have 125 employees, of which some positions are already there, and others would need to be created.
Secretary Chad Poppell, who was in the gallery to watch the bill’s final passage, would appoint a Chief Quality Officer who would monitor internal and vendor operations, with the goal being “exemplary services” and “direct accountability for quality assurance” in child welfare.
Under the measure, annual reporting would be required, predicated on performance metrics. The bill requires DCF to create a grading system “to increase transparency to the system.”
Slater Bayliss, an advocate with Cardenas Partners for the welfare agency overseeing Belliveau’s case, touted the Speaker-Designate’s commitment to fixing the foster system.
“Sen. Simpson knows that unfortunately, many of the children in Florida’s foster care system already have been failed by their parents,” Bayliss said. “The last he wants to see is these same kids also be failed by bureaucracy.”
Providers that fall below expectations would get assistance in implementing corrective action. The department will have to terminate contracts with low-performing vendors if there’s no improvement.
DCF may not continue to contract with child welfare or mental health providers that persistently fail to meet performance standards for three or more years.
Florida Politics Reporter Sarah Mueller contributed to this report.