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Miami Herald Series Prompts Changes To Florida Child-Welfare Legislation

Seandel Edwards/flickr

The Miami Herald series “Innocents Lost” may lead to more changes at DCF – Florida’s Department of Children and Families.

The Herald investigation chronicles the deaths of hundreds of children under DCF’s watch.

Sen. Eleanor Sobel, D-Hollywood, is one of the state leaders charged with overseeing DCF as chair of the Senate Children, Families, and Elder Affairs Committee.

Sobel has added more requirements to a bill already moving through the Legislature to revamp DCF.

Q: After the first segment of the Herald series was published, you said you wanted to rework a bill that's supposed to reform the Department of Children and Families. What changed for you after reading that story?

A: I was convinced more than ever that there is some confusion about whether the family is more important – keeping the family intact – or what is in the best interest of the child. I was absolutely sure that we must do first what’s in the best interest of the child and then, if possible, keep the child with the family.

We need comprehensive services for the children and… for the parents. Whether it’s mental health, drug abuse, physical violence against each other – all of these are interrelated as well as with lack of education about what it takes to raise a child in this world.

Q: The original bill went a long way toward making changes at DCF. Could you explain the proposed changes that were initially offered?

A: There were some really good changes, for example, I think a focus on the protective investigators - that they be qualified social workers. We have some very good workers. However, we need workers who are trained and qualified before they even walk into the door

Q: So you already had big proposals on tap, but then you talked about how you got out your pen and started making improvements to the bill. Can you talk about some of the things that you specifically added?

A: Our new draft will emphasize that decisions by DCF must be based on the best interest of the child rather than reunification of the family. We need to have greater accountability and transparency in accordance with the law. We’re going to empower the community alliances. They will be watchdogs, independent. They’re a volunteer group - they really have no ax to grind but to help these kids.

Q: You’re hoping to add services or at least add people who are more qualified. What are the hurdles you face in getting all the reforms that you want passed?

A: DCF seems to be on the defensive that, you know, “we’re not that bad.” We all should be rowing in the same direction and moving ahead and taking the attitude [that] what we have is not working and we could do better.

Q: Is there anything else you’d like to add about your work to help make changes at DCF?

A: I think we’ve come a long way. The committee has put together a product that we can be proud of. “Innocents Lost” - that deals with a six year span of 477 children who died of abuse and neglect after coming to the attention of DCF – just shows us that we could do better, and I applaud the Herald for a first rate investigation.