The Palm Beach Post reported today that the Florida House Human Services Access subcommittee voted on and approved a horrendous proposal that is sure to create more danger and risk for the thousands of unfortunate children in Florida’s foster home program, and who receive child services from private agencies

Unfortunately, the sponsor of the House bill is from right here in Central Florida.  Florida House Member Scott Plakan has proposed that the private child service agencies that the State of Florida selects and pays to protect its most vulnerable children face only limited responsibility for actions or omissions that harm the children they are charged with protecting.  Mr. Plakan has suggested that child welfare agencies who are found to be negligent should bear no more than $500,000.00 in total responsibility to a child – no matter how badly the child has been damaged.  Furthermore, Mr. Plakan has proposed that these private agencies only be required to carry $500,000.00 in liability insurance – no matter how many children the agency is providing services to.  Lastly, Mr. Plakan seeks to make the Florida Department of Children and Families and the private agencies it hires immune from any negligent acts of subcontractors.

Mr. Plakon says that the agencies are being hurt by rising insurance rates as a result of “frivolous lawsuits.”  Mr. Plakon believes that “even if they don’t do anything wrong, it’s only a matter of time before they will get sued.”

This is one of the more reprehensible and cynical legislative proposals I have seen in a long time.  As with most proposals to cap damages or limit liability, this proposal hurts the children who have been the most significantly wronged and damaged – all in the interests of saving money.

It must be remembered:  it is ultimately the State of Florida who is charged with caring for children who the State determines are dependent.  Prior to the 1990’s, the state’s Department of Children and Families cared for and had responsibility for these kids.  However, as part of a continuing Conservative social experiment, it was decided that private companies could be hired around the state to better provide these services.   Competitive bids are now solicited from private companies at regular intervals, and the folks at DCF supposedly carefully screen and select the firms that they feel will do the best job.

Nobody forces these companies to bid for these lucrative contracts.  Similarly, nobody forces these companies to make bids that they cannot afford to fulfill.   For example, an agency called Hillsborough Kids is contracted to receive $200 million from the state for overseeing about 2,500 children.  One must presume that when these companies formulate their bids that they have a pretty good idea about their liability landscape and how much their insurance will cost.  Private companies across practically every industry are seeing insurance rates increase, and most are finding ways to cope.  What is so different about these particular private companies, and why are they not expected to accept full responsibility when they do something wrong?  These folks have to realize when they elect to get into this business – and to accept $200 million over three years – that if they are careless and don’t do their jobs properly, the results are usually catastrophic for a vulnerable child.

For $200 million dollars, I would bet that there would be plenty of companies looking to contract with the state to do with work — even under the current law.

Why should Florida’s most vulnerable and victimized children not receive full compensation for damages that they can prove were a direct result of these agencies’ negligence?   Apparently, Senator Jack Latvala is sponsoring a similar measure in the Florida Senate.  He should be ashamed of himself, too.

You can always tell that legislators are short of sound public policy grounds for a new measure when they start dragging out the old, tired “frivolous lawsuit” justification.   There are already plenty of remedies under Florida law available to anyone who is the “victim” of a meritless, frivolous lawsuit.

Passage of this bill would potentially place children in more danger because the private companies could take their millions and know that if they make a huge mistake, they are completely protected.  This might encourage the agencies to take shortcuts, and perhaps be less diligent and careful about the work they are being paid to do.  This is clearly not in the best interests of Florida’s children — no matter how much money it might save these private companies.

If you have any questions regarding child abuse or child sexual abuse, call Orlando accident attorneys Kim Cullen and Bob Hemphill at 407-644-4444.

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