Bills worry child advocates


Daytona Beach News Journal

By DEBORAH CIRCELLI

DAYTONA BEACH — While social service agencies brace for more cuts this legislative session, many are following dozens of bills dealing with everything from giving foster children psychotropic medications to better screening of employees who work with vulnerable children and adults.

Improvements in background screenings for state-regulated jobs passed the Florida House on Thursday, but will still need approval in the Senate and by the governor. Owning a gun also won’t prevent someone from adopting a child, based on a bill approved in both chambers Thursday.

Local child-welfare officials are also watching what new guidelines will be passed dealing with prescribing psychotropic medications to foster children after the April 2009 death of a South Florida 7-year-old foster child, Gabriel Myers. Gabriel was prescribed several mind-altering drugs and hanged himself in his foster home. Locally, about 120 or 14.4 percent of foster children in out-of-home care such as foster homes, group homes or living with relatives are on psychotropic medications.

Former foster youth receiving a monthly stipend by the state for living expenses while they continue their education could also see their money cut in half.

A House bill (HB 5305) would place a cap of $675 on how much former foster youth could receive each month for living expenses while continuing their education. About 70 youth locally are receiving about $1,200 a month. Another committee bill (SB7066) would require an audit of the program to track how youth are doing and spending the funds.

State and local advocates fear cutting funds will lead to youth dropping out of high school or college and becoming homeless.

“I think it would be extremely difficult for them to make it,” said Bill Babiez, CEO of Community Partnership for Children, the local foster care agency for the state.

Some other bills being followed by social service agencies include:

• BACKGROUND SCREENINGS (SB1520/HB7069): Enhances screenings for groups working with vulnerable adults and children. Some areas would include Guardian Ad Litem, nursing homes, foster homes, mental health personnel, home health agency personnel and people working with the developmentally disabled. The bill passed unanimously in the House. Fingerprints for various groups would be submitted electronically and retained by the state Department of Law Enforcement.

• FIREARMS/ADOPTIONS (SB530/HB0315): Prohibits an agency from denying a person the ability to adopt because they lawfully possess a firearm. The Legislature adopted the bill Thursday — including a 112-0 vote in the House and 38-2 in the Senate — and Gov. Charlie Crist said he supports it.

• ADOPTION (SB102/HB0003): Repeals law that currently prohibits someone who is homosexual from adopting.

• ATTORNEY REPRESENTATION FOR FOSTER CHILDREN (SB1860/HB7075): Appoints attorneys for foster children in certain cases such as if they’ve been in care for 18 months and their parents’ rights have not been terminated, or if a child asks for an attorney and the court agrees. Also, in cases where psychotropic medications are prescribed and the child objects or the court is concerned.

• INCREASED SERVER PENALTIES/OPEN HOUSE PARTIES (SB1068/SB1066/HB0033): Enhances penalties for people serving alcohol to someone under 21, including someone hosting an open house party where drugs or alcohol are possessed or consumed by minors. As opposed to 60 days in jail and a fine not to exceed $500, a person could get a one-year sentence and $1,000 fine, which is a first-degree misdemeanor, for selling or delivering alcohol to a minor within one year of a prior conviction.

• MENTAL HEALTH, CRIME REDUCTION AND TREATMENT ACT (SB1140/HB 1189): Provides more substance abuse and mental health services in the community such as crisis intervention teams and mental health courts. The legislation would reduce the number of people with mental illnesses or substance abuse disorders from being in the criminal justice system. Chet Bell, CEO of Stewart-Marchman-Act Behavioral Healthcare, said, “We want mental illness among nonviolent offenders to be treated as a health issue, not a criminal justice issue,”

• INTELLECTUAL DISABILITIES (SB1388): Would replace the word “mental retardation” in current legislation to “intellectual disability.” Barry Pollack, president & CEO of United Cerebral Palsy of East Central Florida in Daytona Beach, said, “Our society has turned the word ‘retardation’ and variations of the word into a socially unacceptable label with very negative characterizations.” Other bills dealing with rights of people with disabilities include increased training requirements for people teaching children with disabilities.

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