With breakneck speed, House and Senate Health and Human Services Appropriations conference committees met Tuesday morning and agreed to $47 million in new money for child welfare services, far below what child advocates had hoped for but more money for treatment services than either chamber had originally sought.
The proposal also gives the governor only about $21 million of the $40 million he sought to expand child protection services -- $31 million of which the governor wanted to be controlled by the Department of Children and Families.
The budget conference is an annual ritual in which legislators meet in public to agree on what has been hammered out behind the scenes as they try to reach accord on differences between the differing budgets drafted by the House and Senate.
In this case, Senate HHS Appropriations Chairwoman Denise Grimsley, R-Sebring, made the first offer early Tuesday. The group adjourned for five minutes to "confer" and, with zero comment, discussion, questions or elaboration, the House HHS Appropriations Chairman Matt Hudson, R-Naples, agreed to it.
Here are the details as presented by Grimsley:
* $13 million to hire 191 child protective investigators, as requested by the governor -- far short of the $32 million he initially sought,
* $5 million for expansion of the Healthy Families program,
* $8 million for select sheriff's departments that handle investigations of child abuse, the same amount requested by the governor.
* $10 million to the Community-Based-Care organizations; this is a net increase of $4.6 million because their initial budgets were reduced by $5.4 million,
* $3 million for human trafficking,
* $5 million to target at-risk families with young children who need subtance abuse treatment.
The final item is a major shift in funding from where the House and Senate started and a reflection of the pleas by child advocates to shift more money into services that could make the most diference in changing family behavior. Child advocates also asked for $25.4 million to allow the privately-run local agencies that manage the cases of at-risk kids to hire more case workers as additional children are brought into the system by the new child protection investigators.
The budget proposal also is a bit of a rebuke to Gov. Rick Scott, who initially asked for $31 million to hire more child protective investigators. The governor reached that number in January and never modified that request to seek additional money for treatment services, even after the Miami Herald Innocents Lost series in March demonstrated that 80 percent of the 477 children who died of abuse and neglect in the last six years were to families whose parents were suffering from mental health and substance abuse problems.
Child advocates warned that the governor's plan would do a better job of keeping a tally of the at-risk kids but would do little to get at the root causes that led to the abuse in the dysfuncational families.