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House bills move ahead on loss of driver’s licenses, human trafficking, Baker Act

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Three bills dealing with issues of child support, sexual exploitation of minors and the controversial Baker Act were passed favorably by the House Children, Families and Seniors Subcommittee Monday.

Rep. Kimberly Daniels introduced HB 313, while Rep. Jeanette Nuñez put forth her legislation on child trafficking in HB 1383 and Rep. David Silvers added his measure (HB 1183) to the meeting.

Daniels’s proposal would give Florida judges greater flexibility in considering cases where defendants challenge the revocation of their driver’s licenses due to back payments of child support. Specifically, the bill amends an existing law known as the “Florida Responsible Parent Act,” creating broader circumstances for state judges to consider before taking the license of a parent behind on child support payments.

The original law was aimed at holding so-called “deadbeat dads” financially responsible for their children but has been controversial since its start. Critics argue it cripples those coming from lower socio-economic circumstances and makes employment prospects tougher, if already unemployed at the time of the license revocation. For with jobs, the loss of a driver’s license can lead to unemployment, further complicating their situation with a judge.

Additionally, opponents have cited many of those caught driving without a license become ensnared in a web of ongoing legal problems and poverty, exponentially worsening their situation, and creating the potential for criminalizing offenders, which makes it harder to be a financially responsible parent.

Daniels said her legislation would prevent judges from automatically revoking licenses or arresting offenders of the Responsible Parent Act. Through electronic monitoring devices, a defendant could keep their license to drive back and forth to work through supervision of the court system and authorizes the state to provide businesses with tax incentives for employing defendants in such cases.

Separately, Nuñez’s bill would change the language in a measure already addressing human trafficking, but not specifically worded to be inclusive of the term “commercial” in the exploitation of minors under 18 years old.

HB 1383 changes several internal and external reporting requirements for the Dept. of Children and Families, the legislator said.

“First the department must submit to the legislature a report from information of the CBC (community-based care) lead agencies noting the prevalence of commercial sexual exploitation and the specialized services used to treat these children, and local service capacity,” Nuñez told the committee Monday. “Secondly the bill also requires the department to maintain data on verified victims of commercial sexual exploitation referred to non-safe houses in their community.”

Current law only requires them to maintain data on who are referred to safe houses, she said.

Further, DCF must conduct multidisciplinary staffing on victims of commercial child sexual abuse to determine their needs. The proposal also would require a so-called “case plan” for those victims and mandate DCF to follow up on all victims of child sexual exploitation, not just individual segments.

Finally, HB 1183 — Silver’s measure would require hospitals or other facilities accepting a child 10 years or younger to notify the clerk of courts in the appropriate county within 24 hours, a sticking point for several committee members who thought it should be inclusive of everyone 18 and under.

The vice chair of the committee, Rep. Julio Gonzalez, wanted to know why the bill was only inclusive of such a narrow — and young — segment of the child population at risk of being lassoed into the Baker Act, which is a process by which a person can be involuntarily detained for psychological purposes.

“There has been a lot of situations in which children have been acting up in school, and unfortunately school will be stopped if they’re suspended, but that’s not the case if they’re Baker Act’ed,” Silvers responded. “So I want to make sure the children that are going to facilities — mental health facilities — are there because they need the help, that they’re not just there for punishment for acting out in class.”

But after several questions by committee members addressing concerns about the bill to Silvers, Gonzalez circled back to his concerns, address one of several he had.

“I think we need to address the 950-lb gorilla in the room that we’re going to do the wrong thing — we’re authorizing the schools to use the Baker Act as a crutch,” he said. “Moving forward I’d like to work with you to solve that riddle.”

The bill also grants lawyers automatic access to that child’s records — school, medical, dental, etc. And any hearings regarding that child must be done in his or her presence, regardless of their age, and provides for penalties in cases not adhering to that stipulation, according to the proposal’s language.

Committee Chair Gayle Harrell ended the meeting by saying, “When a 6-year-old is Baker Act’ed there’s a lot going on there. We need to make sure that child is being appropriately treated as rapidly as possible.”

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.

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