The Senate Committee on Children, Families, and Elder Affairs, chaired by Senator Lauren Book (D-Plantation), on Tuesday, passed Senate Bill 80, Child Welfare, by Senator Jason Brodeur (R-Sanford).
The legislation expands and clarifies existing laws related to sibling and transition placements for children in out-of-home care.
The bill works to recognize and balance relationships young children develop with out-of-home caregivers and siblings with those of the child’s biological family members, in order to reduce trauma-related to abrupt or frequent placement changes that remove children from safe, successful placements. The bill also requires that a quick reference FACE sheet be created for each child to summarize the status of the child’s case and goals moving forward.
“Sometimes we get so caught up in finding the perfect placement for a child that we pass up a really good home where the child will be loved and cared for. Childhood is too short for at-risk kids to spend years waiting in limbo. This legislation maintains our commitment to keeping siblings together, but not to the exclusion of other important relationships the child has formed. It also makes it clear that if a child has been in a successful placement for nine months, we ought to try to keep the child with that caregiver,” said Senate President Wilton Simpson (R-Trilby), “We know the earlier in life we can give a child a permanent living situation, the better off that child will be in the long run. Government is a horrible parent, so this bill makes sure we have the right team of people making the decisions about where a child is going to live.”
“We have seen too many horrific incidents where children in state care have fallen through the cracks. While government can never replace the role that should be filled by a child’s parents, we can do a better job of making sure vulnerable young children who have been neglected or abused are not re-victimized in out-of-home care, or constantly tossed around from one placement to another,” said Senator Brodeur, who is himself adopted.
“This legislation tackles some of the most challenging and recurring problems in our child welfare system with updates to current law that seek to reduce the time as well as the number of out-of-home placements children have before they find a healthy, permanent living situation.”
The bill requires the Department of Children and Families (DCF) and Community-Based Care entities (CBCs) to develop a “FACE sheet,” for each child in Florida’s Child Welfare System.
The sheet must include specific data points related to the child’s case, for the DCF and the CBCs to keep in the dependency case file, including details on each transition the child has experienced since the initial placement. The FACE sheet must be updated at least once a month.
Currently, Florida’s Department of Juvenile Justice (DJJ) uses a “FACE sheet” for each child in the delinquency system for quick reference on demographic information, placement history, charges and arrest history, court orders, etc. Other states, including Iowa and Virginia, have implemented FACE sheets for child welfare cases.
The bill clarifies and expands the role and make-up of existing multidisciplinary teams (MDT) that are used to engage with families to ensure better decisions for the child.
Certain people involved in the child’s case, such as the department, child, parents and other important family and friends would be present at each team staffing.
Further, the bill authorizes the DCF or CBC to invite additional relevant experts and providers, such as a Guardian Ad Litem, school personnel, behavioral health providers and experts, or others to team meetings to provide additional perspectives for specific decisions related to the child.
The team must be formed as soon as possible when the child is removed from the home or within 72 hours after the child is removed in an emergency situation.
If the team cannot come to a consensus, the person who acts as a facilitator for the team must file a report with the court within five business days noting the objections of various participants. If a consensus is reached, the decision of the team becomes the official position, and the DCF and CBC are bound by the decision.
To facilitate more successful transitions, including educational transitions, the bill requires the development of detailed and child-appropriate transition plans that minimize the impact on the child.
This occurs through coordination between the DCF, CBC and MDT prior to the child’s placement changing or, when the change is due to an emergency situation, within 72 hours. The bill helps prospective caregivers prepare for welcoming the child by ensuring the caregiver has access to information specific to the child and the transition plan.
Florida law currently acknowledges the importance of maintaining and strengthening sibling bonds as a key component to child well-being and a successful permanent placement for a child.
Specifically, Section 39.522, F.S., currently establishes criteria for the court to consider when determining whether a change of custody is appropriate, including that the court must consider the sibling relationship regardless of the depth of the bond between the siblings.
The legislation creates consistency by specifying how the DCF and the CBCs must handle placement and transition of sibling groups at all points of the dependency process.
Specifically, the bill outlines factors to consider when determining placement for child under three years of age who is part of a sibling group. The bill requires the court to balance the benefit of the bonds of the child with the caregiver or the sibling, as opposed to prioritizing the relationship between siblings over other relationships. For example, the bill requires the DCF to make reasonable efforts to make the initial placement of a child who enters out-of-home care later than his or her siblings with the sibling if it will not disrupt the placement.
However, the state would not be required to make an initial placement or change of placement to develop a sibling bond that does not exist. The legislation also provides for the contact and visitation between siblings who are not placed together in out-of-home care, with the goal of assisting the siblings with continuing such relationships or possibly developing the relationship.
Transition planning is critical for children whether they are being moved to another temporary setting or to potentially permanent families. Florida law does not currently provide a centralized section of law detailing procedures for how a child is to be transitioned between placements throughout the dependency process.
The legislation provides additional factors for the court to consider when determining changes of custody. The bill creates a rebuttable presumption that more equally balances the express wishes of a biological parent, relative, or caregiver of a sibling with other important factors.
Specifically, the bill clarifies that the best interest of the child is to continue the current placement when reunification is not a permanent option, the child has resided in a safe and stable placement for nine continuous months, or if the custodian in the current placement is eligible for consideration as an adoptive parent or permanent custodian.
The bill requires the court to conduct an evidentiary hearing to determine the best placement and imposes deadlines for the evidentiary hearing. An initial status hearing must be held within seven days, and the DCF would be prohibited from moving the child until a court order states to do so.
The legislation requires the court to appoint an attorney for the child and an expert in attachment and bonding, and authorizes the caregiver to retain counsel.