Christian Coalition bill plagued by controversy

Mike Mastromatteo

The Interim

Florida pro-family supporters reject charges that a Family Bill of Rights Act now being debated in the state capitol protects pedophiles and other child abusers.

In a 4-3 vote March 9, the Senate Committee on Health and Rehabilitative Services approved the bill which limits the authority of the state’s child welfare investigators. The bill is one of the items in the Christian Coalition’s new “Contract with the Florida “Family.”

Critics of the bill contend the bill protects pedophiles and abusers by making it harder for child welfare workers to remove children from harmful environments. Pro-family groups, however, say criticism stems from a heavy-handed child welfare bureaucracy anxious to protect its position.

The Family Bill of Rights Act requires that except for emergencies, Florida’s child welfare workers obtain court orders before taking children out of their homes. The act forces the child welfare department to settle suspected abuse or neglect cases more quickly. As well, it allows some parents to find out who reported them to the state’s abuse hotline. Finally, the bill makes it a felony for case workers tot easier for abusers and pedophiles to harm young people. They have latched onto comments by Minnesota psychologist Ralph Underwager – a key supporter of the bill – that pedophilia “is an acceptable expression of God’s will for love and unity among human beings.” Underwager reportedly made the comments five years ago in a Dutch journal for pedophiles.

According to some reports, Underwager also makes a living defending sex abusers in court.

However, Carol Griffin, a spokesperson for the pro-family Eagle Forum organization, said Underwager’s comments have been taken out of context to discredit the new bill. “There is no way this bill offers any protection for pedophiles,” Griffin said. “But people with the state’s Health and Rehabilitation Services are trying to portray it that way. It’s become a matter of turf protecting.”

The Florida office of Eagle Forum has received more than l5,000 letters from parents complaining of child welfare department harassment, Griffin said. She said the department regards parents suspected of abusing their children as guilty until proven innocent. In many cases, she added, case workers lack the training necessary to undertake proper investigation. This often leads to frivolous charges and needless trauma for accused families.

Griffin said the bill strikes a balance between the rights of parents and the obligation of the state to protect children. “The bill protects children who are in need of protection,” she said, “the ones who are truly being abused.”

Critics of the family rights bill are not without support in the media. An editorial in the St. Petersburg Times called the Family Bill of Rights “a dreadful business.” It said that while Florida child welfare workers may have acted in a heavy-handed manner in the past, the new law puts children at risk by creating more obstacles to their removal from harmful environments.

“There are children in Florida cemeteries for whom the Health and Rehabilitative Services (department) did not act soon enough,” the editorial says.

The bill is now stalled in the Florida legislature. It needs approval from two more committees before it foes to the Florida Senate for a final vote.

Dr. Colin Maloney, executive director of the Catholic Children’s Aid Society of Toronto said elements of the Florida situation are common to most child welfare organizations. He suggested the high volume of cases handled by Florida’s Human and Rehabilitative Services department coupled with a shortage of skilled investigators, may have led to the current crisis.

“There’s always a fine balance between protecting children at risk and the rights of families,” Dr. Maloney said. “A lot depends on the ability of the investigators and the courts to provide a balance to the proceedings.”