A bill requiring every county in Florida to designate a location for parents to safely exchange custody of children cleared its first legislative hurdle with support on both sides of the dais.
The House Civil Justice Subcommittee voted unanimously to advance HB 385 to the second of two panel hearings to which it was assigned last month.
The measure is named for 37-year-old Navarre woman Cassie Carli, who vanished in late March 2022 following a scheduled custody exchange of her preschool-aged daughter at a restaurant parking lot near her home.
The proposed “Cassie Carli Law,” which Navarre Rep. Joel Rudman is carrying for a second consecutive Session, aims to lower the chance that another person in Florida would have to face a similar tragedy
Rudman’s bill and a similar Senate companion (SB 580) by Jacksonville Sen. Clay Yarborough would require all court-approved plans for shared parental custody to include, unless otherwise agreed to by both parents, a list of “designated authorized locations” to hand off their children.
In cases where a parent provides evidence they or their child are at risk of harm, a court may require the parents to make the exchange in the parking lot of a county Sheriff’s Office.
The parking lot, designated by the Sheriff, must be well-lit, accessible at all times, identified with a purple light or sign demarking the area as a “neutral safe exchange location” and have video surveillance.
Each Sheriff would have to host at least one exchange site per county, though the measure places no cap on the number. Reps. Kimberly Daniels of Jacksonville and Rick Roth of Wellington expressed hope there would be multiple locations in each county, something Rudman said should come at “no extra burden to the county.”
Rudman said giving the Sheriff authority over where the exchange site will be is one of several changes he made this year to the measure, the prior version of which passed in the House last Session before stalling in the Senate.
Another change, he said, would add a checkbox to domestic violence protection forms allowing parents to request use of an exchange location at a Sheriff’s Office.
Tampa Rep. Traci Koster, a marital and family law lawyer, praised the provision for making it easy for parents at risk of violence to protect themselves with a simple pen stroke.
“When you’re filling out a domestic violence injunction petition, you are there by yourself. You have just been abused. You don’t know up from down and you’re checking boxes on a form and you don’t know,” she said. “Now there’s a box that somebody can check, and that’s much easier than trying to read and understand and comprehend a statute.”
During the hearing Wednesday, Rudman also proffered and received approval for an amendment shielding counties and their Sheriffs from legal liability for any adverse incident that arises during an exchange. He attributed its initial omission to a “freshman mistake” on his part.
Asked by Sarasota Rep. Fiona McFarland if Sheriffs supported his bill, Rudman said there was broad approval among them for the current version based on changes he made after receiving “blowback” last Session. The prior version, he said, gave County Commissions say over where the exchange locations would be rather than Sheriffs, as is the case with HB 385.
A representative from the Florida PTA and several members of the public, two of them friends of Carli, spoke in favor of the bill.
Kristy Sullivan said Carli had “grown weary” after four years of contentious custody issues with her ex and “in haste went” to an unsafe, dark location.
“There was no other area within our county that had provided what she would have needed to save her life at that time,” she said. “This bill could make a big difference. I firmly believe that if we’d had this in our county, she’d be with us today.”
Another friend, former Alabama police officer Stacy Cole, noted that prior to her disappearance, Carli had never reported or spoken of physical abuse by her ex. But Carli was fearful his behavior would escalate and may have availed herself of the protections conferred by HB 385.
“By passing HB 385, you are saving future Cassies,” she said. “It may not be 100% perfect, and there may be things that come down the road, because I would love and will fly to our nation’s capital to see this become federal law.”
Lawyer Andrea Reid, representing the Family Law Section of the Florida Bar, said the group worked closely with Rudman over the past two years to refine and improve his bill. She likened it in spirit and potential impact to Greyson’s Law, a measure lawmakers passed unanimously in April that enables courts to consider threats against ex-partners or spouses when setting child visitation and custody policies.
Dania Beach Rep. Hillary Cassel, who sponsored Greyson’s Law, is sponsoring the proposed “Cassie Carli Law” alongside Rudman.
“This is in fact one of those bills that will definitely make a difference,” Reid said. “I applaud this body and the Senate because it worked so well with Greyson’s Law, (and) we are now paying attention to the kind of situations that Cassie Carli was in last year. We’re putting it all together and we’re continuing, time and again, to make parents safe and children safe, and this is the exact kind of bill that’s going to make that happen.”
HB 385 is to next go to the House Judiciary Committee, its last stop in the chamber before going to a floor vote. SB 580 awaits consideration before the first of two committees to which Senate President Kathleen Passidomo referred it Tuesday.
If passed, the measure will go into effect July 1. It does not include consideration for Miami-Dade County, which won’t have an elected Sheriff until 2025.