Les Neuhaus - 6/8 - SaintPetersBlog

Les Neuhaus

Les Neuhaus is an all-platform journalist, with specialties in print reporting and writing. In addition to Florida Politics, he freelances as a general-assignment and breaking-news reporter for most of the major national daily newspapers, along with a host of digital media, and a human rights group. A former foreign correspondent across Africa and Asia, including the Middle East, Les covered a multitude of high-profile events in chronically-unstable nations. He’s a veteran of the U.S. Air Force, in which he served as a Security Policeman, and graduated from the University of Tennessee with a B.A. in political science. He is a proud father to his daughter and enjoys spending time with his family.

New details emerge in case of foster mother charged in murder of Tampa-area toddler

Aedyn Agminalis

All the red flags were there.

There was a toddler with medical needs; a medically untrained, first-time foster parent with occasional problems falling behind on rent and a possible need for extra income in raising her two biological children; and multiple visits to the hospital, according to news reports and information gathered independently by FloridaPolitics.com Thursday.

However, on paper LaTamara Stackhouse Flythe met all the criteria for foster parenting. She lived in a nice suburban Tampa neighborhood and listed her income at around $70,000, according to an article by The Tampa Bay Times Thursday, which noted her earnings were a combination of child support and a salary from her employer, Children’s Home Network, an “agency subcontracted by Eckerd Kids to recruit, license and support foster parents.”

A Door of Hope, another Eckerd subcontractor, approved Flythe’s foster parenting license. Foster parents get a minimum of $439 per month, per child, aged 5 or under in Florida. Flythe had the option to foster one more child in her home, meaning a potential four minors could have been living under her roof.

Eckerd Kids is one of the biggest so-called community-based care agencies (CBCs) contracted to do foster care and adoption business with the state of Florida. In 2012, DCF officials in Tallahassee awarded the lucrative $65.5 million annual contract to Eckerd Kids for Hillsborough County, where they claim more children die every year than in any other county in the Sunshine State. (Eckerd is headquartered in Clearwater, and when they got the Hillsborough contract they already had contracts with Pinellas and Pasco counties.)

LaTamara Stackhouse Flythe

Adrienne Drew, the spokesperson for Eckerd Kids, confirmed Thursday to FloridaPolitics.com the agency had no policy in place to flag repeated medical incidents with foster children placed in the care of foster parents, but have since instituted one.

Drew also said Gulf Coast Jewish Family & Community Services, yet another subcontractor of Eckerd Kids, was assigned to handle Aedyn’s case, specifically, while he was in foster care — his case worker would’ve been allocated from that agency.

But now Flythe is charged with first-degree murder and aggravated child abuse in the death of toddler Aedyn Agminalis, who was removed from the home of his biological parents, Brynn and Artha Agminalis, under which Aedyn was living in below standard conditions, a Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office spokesman said.

“The CPID (child protective investigation division) worker said their living environment was in deplorable conditions,” Lt. Larry McKinnon told FloridaPolitics.com Thursday. “There was feces in the crib and on the boy — it wasn’t a good situation.”

No one from Eckerd Kids was at the hospital the day Aedyn’s life support system was shut off.

The mother, Artha, had been interviewed by the local CBS-affiliate TV news station, claiming she and her husband had decided to give Aedyn up for adoption, but that wasn’t true, according to McKinnon.

“People say all kinds of things when this happens, but in this case, she can say what she wants — they (CPID) were taking the boy out of their home anyway the same day they first visited the home,” he said. “They had already decided he needed to be removed.”

According to the Times article, the Agminalis’s admitted to child welfare investigators they were ill-equipped to care for Aedyn and requested he be taken into the foster care program.

“The charges arise from the care and feeding of their son before he was placed in state custody in September,” the Times reported. “The couple, who moved to Florida from Kentucky when Aedyn was about 10 months old, had decided they weren’t ready to be parents. Through an adoption agency, they had chosen Colleen Kochanek and her wife, Stephanie Norris, to adopt Aedyn.”

***

But without Kochanek’s or Norris’s knowledge, Eckerd Kids was trying to get Aedyn’s paternal grandparents to adopt him.

FloridaPolitics.com reached out to Kochanek, but a response was not immediately returned before the publishing of this article.

In December, just after Aedyn’s death, the CBS-affiliate in the Tampa-St. Petersburg area, WTSP 10News, interviewed Kochanek and Norris, who had just successfully adopted a separate child and were waiting to add Aedyn to their family.

“It just seems like we were fighting them instead of them saying, ‘Gosh, this is great. This little guy is going to find a permanent home,’” Kochanek, with Norris standing next to her and responding directly about Eckerd Kids, told a 10News reporter. “Why the delay? If people have already been through adoption, let’s expedite that. Let’s get children out of foster care as soon as possible. I’m not saying that any child is going to be harmed any minute in foster care. Sure, there’s excellent foster parents out there but why delay? Why not have him with us as soon as absolute possible?”

Eckerd Kids is widely known to promote Christianity, and the fact the pair were a married lesbian couple may have played a factor in the stonewalling the couple received. Kochanek is a North Carolina Bar-certified lawyer.

David Dennis, the CEO and executive director for Eckerd Kids, is a Baptist from Oklahoma, who earned $566,151 in combined compensation and income during fiscal year 2014, according to an IRS 990 records (untaxed nonprofits are required to file one annually). The next fiscal year, 2015, he got a significant raise, pushing his combined earnings as head of Eckerd Kids, also known as Eckerd Youth Alternatives, to $708,028 — a $141,877 bump up.

Dennis has a master’s degree in marriage and family counseling from Southwestern Baptist Seminary and a bachelor’s degree in religion from Oklahoma Baptist University, according to the Eckerd website.

Kochanek and Norris believe Aedyn’s death needs to be investigated beyond the reasons he died, primarily on why he wasn’t placed into adoption sooner, they told 10News. They also want to see Aedyn’s medical records from the time he went into foster care until the moment he died.

FloridaPolitics.com asked DCF why the medical records haven’t yet been given to the couple yet.

Jessica Sims, a spokesperson for DCF, emailed this message about the medical records: “Regarding the prospective adoptive parents and the medical records, this was through a private adoption agency, so (they) would need to reach out to that entity on their processes. There are also likely HIPAA considerations in a situation related to the release of medical records.

“In general, there may often be more than one permanency plan being sought for a child to ensure permanency is achieved as soon as possible. This is called concurrent case planning. Additionally, there may also be more than one prospective adoptive parent(s) being reviewed as a placement option at one time, especially individuals related to the child.”

***

In four of the last six years, Hillsborough County has led the state in the number of children removed from their homes. In Hillsborough, DCF does not lead child welfare investigations — the sheriff’s office does.

The idea of sheriff’s offices taking over from DCF began as an experiment in the 1990s in Manatee County and spread to three other Tampa Bay-area counties, to include Pasco, Pinellas and, of course, Hillsborough. Only six counties in the state let the sheriff’s offices handle what would normally be DCF-led investigations.

The other two counties are Seminole and Broward out of the six — six counties out of 67 in the state.

However, in Hillsborough County by the end of the 2016 fiscal year, “investigators with the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office removed 1,672 children, the highest number in more than 10 years. That’s almost 450 more than Miami-Dade County, home to roughly 1.3 million more people than Hillsborough,” according to a Tampa Bay Times article from August 2016.

The article went on: “For some, the numbers suggest that the county at times removes children unnecessarily. Others speculate that Hillsborough’s large low-income population, scattered over urban and rural areas, makes it difficult to help with social services. Whatever the reason, the result is an overburdened child welfare system.

“Almost 40 children ended up sleeping in offices and other make-do accommodations over a three-month period this spring and summer because state contractor Eckerd Kids could not place them in foster homes.”

Hillsborough’s Child Protective Investigation Division is comprised of more than 70 civil investigators, not sworn law enforcement deputies. They only take a 12-week training course and then additional on-the-job training to get certified by DCF, then they are granted the power to separate children from their biological parents at their discretion.

The Times article from 2016 also noted Eckerd Kids sets a mediocre goal of “getting 60 percent of children returned to their families or placed permanently with foster parents within one year of removal.”

Over a 12-month period ending in June 2016, the Times noted, Eckerd “failed to meet that goal even once and in May and June also failed to meet the state target of permanently placing 40.5 percent of children within one year.”

FloridaPolitics.com asked Eckerd about these goal percentage failures, but they were unable to answer in time for the publishing of this article.

In Aedyn’s case, both his biological parents and foster parent failed him.

DCF Secretary Mike Carroll responded a request for comment by FloridaPolitics.com, issuing a statement.

“Quality foster parents are essential to our work in helping vulnerable children begin to heal in a safe environment,” Carroll said. “Because we place such sacred trust in them, each one must pass a background screening and home study, as well as go through specific training. There was nothing in Ms. Flythe’s background that indicated she could be a threat to any child placed in her care.

“We ask individuals and families all across the state to step up and become foster parents. We trust them to help us care for these children and that makes it even more devastating when one is accused of hurting the very child they were charged to protect.”

 

Pam Bondi touts $165 million recovered by state’s Medicaid fraud unit

Florida has proved to be one of the most effective states in the nation last year for recovering Medicaid fraud money.

A report issued by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services revealed Florida recovered more than $165 million in otherwise lost funds through fraudulent Medicaid cases during fiscal year 2015-2016, the state’s attorney general said in a statement Thursday.

The report shows Attorney General Pam Bondi’s Medicaid Fraud Control Unit (MFCU) is working, according to the Office of Inspector General for Health and Human Services.

“My Medicaid Fraud Control Unit investigators work tirelessly to stop Medicaid fraud and recover stolen funds for taxpayers,” Bondi said in the statement. “This report sends the strong message that we will continue to aggressively pursue anyone trying to defraud Florida’s Medicaid program.”

According to the report, Florida ranked only second in the nation in total funds recovered for the 2015-2016 fiscal year, with New York raking in the most at nearly $229,000,000.

Since taking office in 2011, Bondi’s MFCU has obtained more than half a billion dollars in settlements and judgments in total.

The unit investigates and prosecutes providers that intentionally defraud the state’s Medicaid program through fraudulent billing practices. In addition, the MFCU investigates allegations of patient abuse, neglect and exploitation in facilities receiving payments under the Medicaid program.

Each year OIG of the HHS publishes a report of the Medicaid Fraud Control Unit statistical data from the preceding federal fiscal year.

California and Texas ranked third and fourth, respectively, with California saving more than $136,000,000 and Texas saving more than $128,000,000.

To view HHS OIG’s report, click here.

FDLE consultant arrested in fraud scheme

John Leland Goelz

A consultant with more than two decades’ experience working with the Florida Department of Law Enforcement (FDLE) was arrested and charged with grand theft and organized scheme to defraud the state government, a spokesperson confirmed Thursday.

John Leland Goelz, a non-sworn technical consultant to the FDLE for 23 years, oversaw the cellphones used by agents and employees throughout the agency, said FDLE spokeswoman Gretl Pessinger.

Investigators believe Goelz purchased cellphones for himself and his family using FDLE’s mobile device contract, a violation of ethics, Pessinger added.

FDLE began examining Goelz after a member reported not being able to get an older cellphone upgraded, and went to a supervisor about it.

“He started to notice that everyone around him was getting upgrades, but his cellphone was old and he couldn’t get an upgrade,” Pessinger told FloridaPolitics.com by phone Thursday.

As part of its mobile device contract, FDLE is eligible for a certain number of mobile device upgrades at discounted rates each year. Goelz purchased 10 mobile devices for his personal use that should have been used to upgrade FDLE member phones, according to a statement issued by the law enforcement agency.

By using FDLE’s contract, he could receive steep discounts on the phones he purchased.  The value lost to the agency was nearly $5,000, Pessinger confirmed.

FDLE is in the process of upgrading its procedures to ensure no changes are made regarding FDLE mobile phones without supervisory oversight.  Goelz, who was arrested Tuesday and booked into the Leon County Jail, is in the process of being terminated from FDLE.

The Office of the State Attorney, 2nd Judicial Circuit will prosecute this case, Pessinger said.

Lawyers for DCF contend agency didn’t lie to South Florida court; made ‘mistake’

Attorneys representing the Department of Children and Families (DCF) told a Miami foster care judge on Wednesday they did not lie, but made a “simple mistake” when they gave faulty information about a girl who may have witnessed the suicide of another child in their foster home, according to a newspaper.

The Miami Herald reported on the tense hearing in which lawyers appeared in front of Judge Maria Sampedro-Iglesia, by her order and under threat of potential jail time, to prove they did not intentionally lie to, or mislead, the judge as a way to divert attention away from a child in the same foster home as Naika Venant, 14, who hung herself in January while streaming it on video via Facebook Live.

In the case, the chief lawyer for DCF in Miami, Clarissa Cabreja, appeared in court on Wednesday to tell the judge her error was a mix-up, the Herald said. A girl identified as J.W., who might have witnessed Naika’s death, was confused with another child also under DCF care with the initials J.W. – the wrong J.W., Cabreja admitted to the judge, according to the Herald.

The so-called mistake was preventing the judge in the relevant J.W.’s case not to be able to follow up on her care.

At point is whether the actual J.W., who could have witnessed Naika’s death, was receiving trauma services or the appropriate counseling she needed. Then the “mistake” happened, DCF lawyers claimed.

On Feb. 28 Sampedro-Iglesia threatened the attorneys with contempt of court and possible jail time.

Wednesday’s hearing was meant to clarify the situation, but as the Herald reported, and as video from the hearing shows, it was edgy from the start.

The attorneys were accused of not demonstrating a sense of urgency on the matter, especially in clarifying the situation with J.W., which the judge pointed out was an error not initiated by DCF itself.

In the Feb. 28 order, Sampredro-Iglesia accused Cabreja, who leads Children’s Legal Services in Miami, of not being truthful when the attorney wrote in a court pleading “that the judge in J.W.’s case had been informed that she was in the Miami Gardens foster home with Naika,” the Herald reported.

“No one thought it was important that this child had been in the home where another child had taken her own life?” Sampedro-Iglesia said to Cabreja, according to the Herald.

Then Sampedro-Iglesia took Cabreja to task, asking her a series of questions, like what was the “golden rule” of child welfare law. Sheridan Weissenborn, Cabreja attorney, objected, but Sampedro-Iglesia carried forward.

At one point, Weissenborn got up and admonished the judge, saying she was moving away from the original task at hand.

“While mistakes happened with regard to a case number,” Weissenborn said in the video excerpt seen in the Herald’s website, “the real issue here is the court’s concerns about these children, and they are getting the services they needed. That’s been taken care of by those judges.”

“There is no contempt,” Weissenborn added.

The judge said she would wait to make her ruling.

DCF, beleaguered by a series of high-profile children’s deaths in recent years and month while in under the agency’s custody, along with a host of investigator arrests, has been hobbled by its ability to control personnel and foster homes; hiring unqualified – or at the very least, unethical, investigators and placing children in dangerous homes. They have been accused by the federal government of removing children from homes too quickly, too.

In counties where sheriff’s lead child welfare investigations, funded by grants, similar instances of neglect and problems exist as well, according to annual performance review evaluations, although the sheriff’s child investigation teams tend to have a good record of initial responses to abuse calls.

Family complains about noisy, alleged drug-dealing neighbors; gets DCF-style investigation by Sheriff’s office

A mother and father have had enough of their neighbors’ drug-dealing, late-night romps that devolve from friendly partying into “screaming matches,” court records in a lawsuit filed in early March indicate.

Jose and Lisa Alecia, with their two children, are homeowners in the Gibsonton neighborhood, located in Hillsborough County outside of Tampa, are seeking $75,000 for damages caused by three neighbors renting a townhome next door in violation of community background screenings.

Around two years ago, Yaritza Heredia, Victor Vincente and Bastin Joseph moved in next door, lessees in a house typically required background screenings and more. However, the homeowner did not carry out the standard searches required before letting the trio rent the place.

Over time, a rift widened, as the complaint describes, with the younger three next door to the Alicea’s staying up late and partying, smoking marijuana in plain view for people to see, being loud, riding four-wheel ATVs and tearing up the grounds with those vehicles, etc.

The Alicea’s called the various applicable homeowners’ associations and the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office.

After that, the documents allege, Heredia, Vincente, and Joseph were party to making threats against the Alicea’s, at one point saying “watch out.”

In retaliation for the Alicea’s complaints, the renters allegedly filed a false report to DCF, citing a host of activities on the part of the Alicea’s, including drug dealing. The neighbors had gone tit for tat.

The phone call warranted a visit to the Alisea’s home by an investigator, most likely an investigator from the Child Protection Team with the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office. (Hillsborough is one of six counties where sheriff’s offices lead all child welfare investigations, not the Florida Department of Children and Families [DCF] – four of those six are in the Tampa Bay area.)

A call placed to the Hillsborough Sheriff’s child protection team by FloridaPolitics.com was not immediately returned as to whether a case was still open against the Alicea’s.

The suit alleges malice, negligence, gross negligence, slander, and the demand for an injunction on the dogs, and on Heredia, Vincente and Joseph when they recently filed a false report against the Plaintiffs.

“Specifically, on or about Jan. 30, 2017, the (the three) filed, or caused to be filed, a report indicating that Plaintiffs were involved with and/or selling drugs, which caused the (DCF) to go to the school of Plaintiff’s children on Feb. 2, 2017, with Plaintiffs’ children pulled out of class, and questioned (without their parents present), including questions about any drug use in the home, if there are drugs or weapons in the home, and if there are persons coming in or out of the home regularly,” according to the court filing. “Plaintiffs’ children were upset over the DCF experience and did not understand why law enforcement was pulling them out of class. In addition, law enforcement came to Plaintiffs’ home on Feb. 2, 2017, and did a search of Plaintiffs’ home (no drugs were found) and required Plaintiffs to submit to drug testing, which Plaintiffs both passed.”

Calls were placed to the Alicea’s were not immediately returned Wednesday.

The renters don’t appear to have voter registration IDs in Hillsborough County.

Appropriations Committee approves bill removing police ‘discretion tool’ in first-time cases with juveniles

A bill introduced and passed unanimously in the Appropriations Committee on Criminal and Civil Justice Wednesday would take away tool long since considered useful, but increasingly controversial – the power of discretion.

The measure – SB 196 — could drastically limit what those in the policing community could do when responding to calls involving minors, detractors at the meeting — which included representatives from the law enforcement associations — argued, as the bill’s sponsor, Sen. Anitere Flores looked on.

“We cannot agree to a bill that takes away from law enforcement discretion,” Matt Dunagan, executive director of the Florida Sheriff’s Association, said. “The sheriff’s do support diversion programs, but if an (ordinance or law) has been broken, a citation must be issued.”

Shane Bennet, head of the Florida Police Chiefs Association, echoed Dunagan’s concerns, also adding his organization supported the civil citations program, which makes attempts from criminalizing charges against offenders who are still minors.

The bill also would create diversion programs for first-time offenders, avoiding a criminal record, which could prevent them from joining the military or qualifying for a range of jobs.

When young people commit serious crimes, there needs to be an appropriate legal penalty. However, there are many situations where youth are displaying a lack of judgment and maturity, rather than serious criminal behavior,” said President Pro Tempore Flores. “This legislation ensures that we utilize other avenues that correct inappropriate behavior without stigmatizing our youth with a criminal record that could impact their future education and career opportunities.”

More than 9,000 minors were arrested in Florida in 2016. Disparities between counties can confound officials, too, as Flores noted, citing that in Pinellas County, where diversion programs have been in place for years, 94 percent of eligible juveniles received civil citations.

“But drive across the bridge into Hillsborough County — it’s only one-third, or 36 percent,” she said.

Senate Bill 196 requires a law enforcement officer to issue a civil citation or require the juvenile’s participation in a diversion program when the juvenile admits to committing certain first-time misdemeanor offenses including: possession of alcoholic beverages, criminal mischief, trespass, and disorderly conduct, among others.

The legislation also mandates the policing community to provide written documentation articulating why an arrest is warranted when he or she has the discretion to issue a civil citation, but instead chooses to arrest the juvenile.

According to The Tampa Bay Times, 52 percent of minors got civil citations throughout the state in 2016.

“If law enforcement had been better at adopting these programs early on, but the truth is, we put too many juveniles in jail, and Florida lags behind,” Sen. Jeff Clemens said bluntly. “It’s time we bring Florida to parity with the rest of the nation.”

Flores closed the bill’s discussion before the unanimous vote favoring the legislation.

“I think training officers is a great idea, but it’s not enough,” she said. “The bill requires better and improved reporting. You know, it’s a little uneasy when you go against what law enforcement says … but we all have to get to a comfortable place where we can talk about it.”

After the committee had closed, Senate President Joe Negron weighed in with a statement.

“In too many cases, we have become a society where law enforcement officers are brought in to referee the day-to-day challenges of raising children,”  Negron said. The Stuart Republican has made juvenile justice reform a top priority of his two-year term.

“This legislation strikes an appropriate balance between public safety and decriminalizing the mistakes of adolescents.”

Separately, the commissioner for the Florida Department of Law Enforcement gave a presentation asking for the establishment of a state counterterrorism force on par with that with the FBI.

Dean Register spoke to the committee members, asking for 46 new positions and $6.4 million to run it annually.

He justified it by citing several of the 9/11 hijackers received their flight training in Florida.

Judiciary Committee tackles gun-rights measures, along with Palm Beach claims bill

The Senate Committee on Judiciary overwhelmingly passed a claims bill Tuesday, compensating a man seriously injured as a teen when the van he was riding in was smashed from behind by a school bus belonging to the district.

The claims bill — SB 24 — was sponsored by Sen. Anitere Flores, who wanted the district to stick with a portion of a future compensation awarded by a jury.

The district admitted liability in the 2006 incident, in which Altavious Carter, then 14, was inside van of his coach, Vincent Merriweather, then 41, when the driver a school district bus slammed into the back of the van Merriweather was driving.

Merriweather was immobilized in 80 percent of his body as a result of the crash a settlement was reached in 2009 for $3.9 million.

Carter, who underwent a series of costly and intense surgeries, including on his spine and back, was awarded an initial judgment of $574,000, with future claims of up to $518,000.

However, the Palm Beach County School District opposed SB 24 in the committee hearing on Tuesday, citing Carter has made a full recovery and even went on to play basketball at Eckerd College.

But the committee wasn’t interested in the county’s opposition and promptly passed the measure 8-0.

The committee heard several other measures Tuesday, most of which had to do with gun-rights legislation in the Sunshine State.

Now lawmakers are looking to take advantage of their Republican-controlled majority in both the House of Representatives and Senate, with Gov. Rick Scott’s support, to expand on those rights.

But one Republican on the committee — Flores — voiced her opposition to the array of legislation before their committee on just the first day of the Legislative Session, including a controversial bill that could allow firearms on state campus universities.

With a packed room of voters looking on — many of them mothers in attendance of another bill on yet to be heard about keeping the identities of murder witnesses confidential — she contended her opinion differed from others on the committee.

However, she did support a bill introduced by Sen. Greg Steube, chair of the Judiciary Committee, relating to guns and courthouses.

“If this bill expands, or any other bill, expands beyond its current scope, it’s something I will not vote for,” Flores said firmly to her fellow senators.

“I do not support having guns on campus, I do not support having guns in airports and I do not support guns in school zones,” she said, acknowledging that she and Steube “do not see eye-to-eye” on the issue. Her sentiment was echoed by fellow South Florida Republican Rene Garcia.

More than 1.7 million Florida residents already have permits to carry concealed handguns, the most of any state in the U.S.

Separately, Sen. Steube’s bill narrowly passed a vote by the committee. It would allow those with concealed gun licenses to approach a courthouse, draw their handgun out and hand it to law enforcement at the entrances to judiciary facilities for proper and secure storage while licensees conduct their business inside.

When those concealed carry licensees leave the courthouse, SB 616 contends, those individuals would pick up their firearms safely from storage with law enforcement.

The bill squeaked by 5-4.

Steube told the committee and those in attendance the bill is intended for lawyers, judges or even victims of domestic violence fearing reprisal.

Two much-anticipated measures on Tuesday were tabled that would exempt law enforcers, retired law enforcement officers and concealed carry licensees from the standard three-day wait time all other Floridians must go through in the process of purchasing handguns.

Sponsored by Sen. Dennis Baxley, the bills — SJR 910 and SB 912 — would also waive the criminal background check for qualified individuals among the three groups specially singled out for such expedited handgun purchases.

If approved the amendment would be brought before a general election to be held in November 2018 or a special election specifically authorized by law, according to the language of the bill.

SJR 910 is actually an amendment to the State Constitution for the exemptions.

Specifically, a “concealed weapon or concealed firearm licensees and certain current and retired law enforcement officers from certain county criminal history and waiting period requirements when purchasing a firearm, providing a contingent effective date,” Baxley’s SB 912 proposal, a continuation of SJR 910.

FloridaPolitics.com tried to reach the Senator for comment without success.

Another bill, introduced by Sen. Rob Bradley — SB 494 — looks to compensate the victims of wrongful incarceration, although the measure has been before the Statehouse floor several times before without success.

“It’s my hope we can get this passed this time around,” Sen. Bradley told the committee, which voted unanimously in favor of the proposal.

Finally, another bill introduced by Sen. Randolph Bracy was unanimously passed.

CS/SB 550 is a confidentiality bill, intended to keep the identities of those testifying as witnesses in a murder trial secret and out of public record. A number of cases of murder witnesses being intimidated have let killers go free.

This bill intends to end that cycle.

“My only daughter was murdered right here in Tallahassee in 2008,” Orlando City Commissioner Regina Hill told the committee on Tuesday in the committee meeting room. “It was a bittersweet memory arriving here today. We need you today to pass this bill.

“Once they know they’re not protected by the ‘no-snitch’ attitude — they’ll think twice about picking up a gun again,” she concluded emotionally.

Bill would require LEOs to wear body cameras during traffic stops

In an effort to promote public safety, a state legislator filed a bill widening by a far margin the state’s use of body cameras by the law enforcement community at large.

State Rep. Al Jacquet filed HB 513 Monday. The bill would, if enacted, require officers to wear and use body cameras while conducting routine traffic stops every time.

“Body cameras are a tool to increase public safety that help protect both officers and the citizens they serve,” Jacquet said in a statement. “Dashboard cameras have helped to protect people for years and this builds off that idea. It’s our responsibility to do all we can to increase accountability, safety and trust for both officers and their communities.”

HB 513 is a companion proposal is SB 828, proposed by Sen. Bobby Powell.

Body cameras have been a growing issue across the nation.

The Miami Police Department is already mandated to wear them, but a recent spot check audit found many of them weren’t wearing them or downloading the footage when they did wear them, according to a Miami New Times article Monday.

Proponents argue the transparency protects both civilians and the police wearing them.

Parenting plan bill that skip courts, lifts court overload gets unilateral support in Senate committee

A bill heard by a Florida Senate committee Monday seeks to streamline the process of setting up a parenting plan for unmarried parents, according to its sponsor.

The proposal in the Senate’s Committee on Children, Families and Elder Affairs Committee – SB 590 – was introduced by its lead author, Sen. Jeff Brandes, with members voting in the end to forward the bill.

After that, the bill still must go through several more committees, then heard on the floor of the Statehouse before it becomes law.

The bill looks to authorize the Florida Department of Revenue to establish parenting time plans agreed to by both parents under Title IV-D child support actions of the Social Security Act, as permitted by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. (Title Iv-D is a federal public welfare program that took effect in 1975. It is a conduit for states to enforce child support programs on parent’s delinquent in such responsibilities, etc.)

“The bottom line is that this bill is not just about money, it’s about spending quality time with kids,” Brandes told the committee.

He was asked what costs the bill would incur to the state, responding there would be a one-time, non-recurring cost of $419,000, with annual recurring costs of $20,000.

“It’s a very economical way for kids to see their dads,” Brandes said.

Brandes’ bill also looks to encourage frequent contact between a child and a parent, or parents, for the positive development of children.

The committee peppered the senator with questions, with one came from Sen. Victor Torres, vice-chair of the committee, who wondered whether it affected parents who lived in other states or under nontraditional conditions. He also mentioned he thought it might need a little tweaking before a vote on the floor of the Florida Senate.

Brandes said if a child is under 3-years old, or if one of the parents has committed a crime – like not paying child support or having been convicted of domestic violence – then the custodial parent wouldn’t have to agree to a parenting plan.

In the event the parents can’t agree on a parenting time plan, they would be referred to a circuit court in their district for the establishment of a program. In these instances, parents wouldn’t pay a fee to file a petition to determine a parenting time plan.

The bill would go into effect Jan. 1, 2018.

It has long been agreed upon by child development experts and those in the psychiatric communities that closer parent-child relationships can often lead to emotional and behavioral stability in adulthood, and overall better mental health, according to the online journal Psychology Today.

The article also noted when parents and children fall out of timing with each other, either of the parties may become mentally distressed.

However, there was a voice of dissent.

Beth Luna, a Jacksonville-based attorney who spoke to the committee about her opposition to the measure, said it SB 590 needs improvements.

“It’s a long-standing policy of this state to do what’s best for a child,” Luna said. “You just can’t implement a plan that’s a one size fits all approach. … Not every child is the same. A child at 16 or 17 is going to be different than a child who is 3 or 4 – the same goes for a special needs child.”

All parenting plans are approved in Family Court in the state of Florida.

Her concerns elicited a host of questions by the committee members, who considered her viewpoint.

But in the end, there was unanimous support for Brandes’ bill.

Range of DCF oversight issues, bills to be debated by Florida lawmakers this Session

As legislators in Tallahassee prepare themselves to convene their 60-day Session Tuesday, expect an assortment of proposed bills to be hashed out over the Department of Children and Families (DCF).

Hot-button subjects with bipartisan support in the Senate and House include improvements in mental health and substance abuse treatment programs, working toward identifying and reducing human trafficking, better child protection and a funding shift from the federal level, according to several officials who spoke with FloridaPolitics.com ahead of Session.

The agency has had a string of high-profile incidents drawing negative attention beyond the state’s borders.  For example, it was recently discovered that scores of reports were falsified by DCF investigators, at least partly, during official investigations, leading to resignations, terminations and in some cases, arrests.

In a few instances, historically, lying on such reports led the agency to lose track of where children are located.

It is a felony to construct false information in child welfare cases in the state of Florida, and the agency began to take the issue seriously as far back as 10 years ago.

In another instance in February, a DCF investigator in Polk County was arrested and charged with trafficking drugs with her live-in boyfriend. Laymeshia Hicks, the mother of a 3-year-old child who lived in her home, had 68 grams of heroin and 288 grams of cocaine in her house with an estimated street value of about $35,000, authorities said.

Worse yet are the deaths of minor children continuing under the department’s care or in instances where the agency had been alerted to a situation but didn’t act in a time appropriate manner. Among the most sensationalist stories making headlines around the country — shocking Florida residents — were the deaths of Naika Venant in Miami Gardens and Phoebe Jonchuck in St. Petersburg.

Naika committed suicide by hanging herself in January while streaming on the Facebook Live application with potentially hundreds of viewers watching for two hours. Phoebe was thrown more than 60 feet off a St. Petersburg bridge into the Tampa Bay waters by her father, John Jonchuck, who was recently found competent to stand trial later this year.

DCF had been warned or involved in both cases.

The continuing embarrassments don’t bode well for public trust in the agency, agreed Rep. Julio Gonzalez, vice-chair of the House Children, Families and Seniors Subcommittee.

But when asked how difficult it is to implement reforms in the wake of such tragedies while also weighing the human-variant quotient into the mix, he said it’s always a challenge to identify and close gaps where policy lags.

“This is a never-ending process of fine tuning the oversight of what the various agencies are doing with these very vulnerable people,” he told FloridaPolitics.com Saturday by telephone. “It is completely unacceptable, and it’s a gross mistrust for all of as human beings.”

He countered, however, the subcommittee – through the leadership of Rep. Gayle Harrell, were working diligently to reduce tragedies. They aren’t waiting for the problems to present themselves to the public – they’re actively engaged in preempting issues that are often affiliated with tragedies like Naika’s and Phoebe’s. In the case of Naika, she had endured physical and sexual abuse, no doubt creating a confusing mindset. And in the case of Phoebe, her father was bipolar, but had not been taking his medicine.

“These issues associated with substance abuse, drug addiction, and mental health – we’re working on legislation to address these problems, especially in so-called safe houses, where some of these people are being placed, and the environments in and around those locations offer temptations back into those situations they’re trying to get out of,” Gonzalez said.

Sen. Rene Garcia, chair of the Senate’s Children, Families and Elder Affairs Committee, is taking up a similar approach, per his legislative assistant, Alessandro D’Amico.

D’Amico said by phone Sunday the committee’s goals would center on mental health – and not just treatment improvements, but the education of the public as a whole about stigmatizing mental health issues – and issues surrounding human trafficking, which often involves children.

“It’s no secret these are two of the top priorities right now for the committee,” he said. “In terms of stigmatizing – we don’t have associate medical procedures negatively, so why would we treat mental health diagnoses any differently? And human trafficking has become a major issue in Florida.”

A report issued by a state agency in 2016 found that between Dec. 7, 2007, and Dec. 31, 2015, Florida residents placed 6,819 calls to the National Human Trafficking Resource Center (NHTRC) Hotline.

“This represents the third highest call volume in the United States,” the report said. “Of these calls, 1,510 (22 percent) were classified by the NHTRC to have moderate or high potential of being a legitimate report of human trafficking.”

It continued to note Florida data collected between 2013 and 2015 revealed 1,136 reports, with 367 or 32 percent, involving minor victims. Within this population, 83.6 percent were female, and 16.4 percent were male. The NHTRC noted the findings weren’t cumulative and not all victims identify gender. Of the 1,136 potential cases reported to the NHTRC from 2013 to 2015, 802 or 71 percent, were classified as sex trafficking, while 207 or 18 percent, were classified as labor trafficking, 44 or 4 percent, were classified as both, and 83 or 7 percent, were not specified.

Reforms within DCF are an important aspect of what the committees do and hope to accomplish with this session, according to Rep. Gayle Harrell, who chairs the same subcommittee alongside Gonzalez. This is her fifth year leading the committee.

“We’re certainly going to continue the work we began four years ago in reforming the child-welfare system,” Harrell said by phone late Sunday while driving to Tallahassee in preparation for the Session. “Children have been terribly abused, so we’re going to make sure that when we have to remove them from a home that we place them in the right location.”

She went on to note the committees were implementing significant changes, but that it takes time to filter through all affiliated organizations.

As for Gov. Rick Scott, he issued a statement through his press secretary, Lauren Schenone, to FloridaPolitics.com Sunday, reiterating his commitment to the children, families, and seniors of the Sunshine State, assuring Floridians he would crack down on DCF employees who abuse the public’s trust.

“Any employee found guilty of wrongdoing is expected to be held fully accountable,” the statement read, in part.

And on the never-ending demand to keep the agency funded, which in turn helps DCF employ more investigators to find children in need, families in crisis and seniors in vulnerable situations, he touted his budget for this coming fiscal year, which devotes “significant investments” toward mental health programs, with three select counties separately undergoing a test program for improved CBCs to better enable his office to gauge potential wider use across the entire state,

“The governor believes strongly that all children in our state deserve to live a safe and healthy life,” the statement emphasized. “Additionally, Gov. Scott signed Executive Order 15-175 in July 2015, which directed the Department of Children and Families to develop, and implement best management practices based on pilot programs in Broward, Pinellas and Alachua counties.”

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FloridaPolitics.com will keep readers informed of DCF-related legislation as debates progress over the next two months, along with publishing daily reports on relevant issues associated with the agency and those working for it, as well as those under its care.

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