MIAMI (AP) _ Democratic lawmakers questioned state child welfare officials Tuesday about a new law requiring drug testing for welfare recipients, including whether recipients had adequate access to testing facilities and whether parents who test positive would significantly delay their children from receiving funds.
Between 1,500 and 2,000 residents have taken the test since the program began in mid-July. About 2.7 percent tested positive for drugs. Another 563 began the application process but did not take the tests, said Pete Digre, deputy secretary for the Department of Children and Families.
There are 351 test sites throughout the state, but five counties, including Monroe, Glades, Hendry, Madison and Hamilton, have none. DCF officials said they are coordinating with contractors in those areas.
Critics wondered if residents weren't following through with the drug tests for fear of testing positive, or because they couldn't afford the $25-$35 test fee or didn't have easy access to a testing facility.
“Are people who aren't following through with the drug tests living in those counties?'' asked Rep. Lori Berman, D-Delray Beach, during a Tallahassee meeting of the House Subcommittee on Health and Human Services Access.
“I don't know the answer to that,'' said Digre.
The controversial new law has sparked national debate and is already the subject of a lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union. The group deems the tests unconstitutional for violating the random search and seizure clause. Supporters, including Gov. Rick Scott, say the tests prevent taxpayer money from funding drug habits, but critics say the law unfairly stereotypes the poor.
During his campaign, Scott said the measure would save $77 million, but it's unclear how he arrived at those figures.
State officials said it's unclear if any money has been saved because of the testing. Under the Temporary Assistance For Needy Families program, the state gives $180 a month for one person or $364 for a family of four.
DCF officials said the testing is in its infancy and suggested waiting until they had three months of data before drawing conclusions.
“The numbers are statistically insignificant in terms of drawing any trends,'' said Wilkins.
Those who test positive for drugs are ineligible for one year (or six months if they pass a drug course) for the temporary cash assistance. If they fail a second time, they are ineligible for three years.
A third-party designated by the family can then sign up for the funds so the money is still be passed onto the children. But that person also must be drug tested and fill out lengthy paperwork, which can delay a family from getting money for 30-60 days, said Digre.
Officials said the majority of positive tests are for marijuana.
“Is there any interest in finding if money by these applicants is being diverted to alcohol abuse, which can be far more destructive and certainly expensive, in terms of money being diverted from their dependents?'' asked Rep. Steve Perman, D-Boca Raton.
The ACLU sued the state earlier this month on behalf of a Navy veteran and single father, who is finishing college. A hearing is scheduled in Orlando on Monday.
Lawmakers in more than two-dozen states have proposed drug-testing recipients of welfare or other government assistance, but the ACLU said Florida was the first to enact since law since Michigan tried more than a decade ago.
Michigan's random drug testing program for welfare recipients lasted five weeks in 1999 before it was halted by a judge, kicking off a four-year legal battle that ended with an appeals court ruling it unconstitutional.