Starting next month, Florida's social service agency will refer every welfare applicant who fails a drug test to a child abuse hotline.
State officials deny the drug test results may be used to remove children from their parents, but civil rights activists fear it will.
Beginning Friday, anyone applying to the state for temporary cash assistance must pass a drug test to receive benefits. Applicants must pay the test's cost, which will be refunded for those who pass. That expense could exceed $100, according to state documents, for those who need a medical review to confirm the drug detected is one for which they have a legal prescription.
In a June 24 memo, the Department of Children & Families directed staff to refer applicants testing positive for drugs to Florida's child abuse hotline "for review to initiate an assessment or an offer of services."
That means a child protection investigation, said Maria Kayanan, associate legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida, which is expected to challenge the constitutionality of the drug-test law.
"The abuse hotline is intended to protect Florida's children from neglect or abuse — not from a positive drug test," Kayanan said. "When you're talking about a search that is unconstitutional to begin with, to then use the result of that search to insert the arm of the state into a family and potentially tear that family apart is unconscionable."
The hotline directive, which appeared nowhere in the drug-test legislation, surfaced in a draft rule earlier this month. At the time, DCF representatives stressed the rule was in preliminary form. A referral to the hotline will probably trigger a visit to the applicant's home, but not necessarily by a child protection investigator, DCF spokesman Joe Follick said.
Instead, Follick said, it may be a local contractor who connects families with drug-abuse treatment or counseling. "We're going to assess the needs of the family. Our goal is always to keep families together, and give them the tools to stay together."
If the DCF finds that children are in immediate danger, it will remove them, he said. But "this is not intended to be, nor will it be, a mechanism for children to be removed only because of a positive drug test."