As the saying goes, if you fail to plan, you plan to fail. Although there’s no shortage of plans and ideas for improving Florida’s child welfare system, the trouble is there’s too many of them. Sometimes, the ideas even compete with each other or lack adequate evidence-based validation. In addition, there’s little consensus on a proactive way forward. The result? Florida’s child welfare system fails far too many kids, far too often.
Over the years, and often in reaction to high profile crises, Florida’s child protection reforms have swung between two general approaches – family preservation, even if it means allowing maltreated children to remain with their parents, or removing children from their homes and placing them in foster care.
Nearly 15 years ago, in the midst of Florida’s transition to child welfare privatization, the Florida Department of Children and Families (DCF) was backlogged with more than 30,000 investigations. To decrease the backlog, child protection practices shifted to reducing the number of children taken into foster care. Resources to protect and supervise the children left behind in troubled households failed to shift with this changed philosophy. Other funding and support services were sometimes slashed or appropriated elsewhere. Therapeutic interventions remained largely unavailable. Many children died.
In recent years, Florida legislators have enacted new child welfare policies that have swung in the other direction. Recent policy changes for assessing abuse allegations and removing children from potentially harmful situations have resulted in a rapid increase in children placed in the state’s care. Currently, there are about 23,000 Florida foster children in out-of-home care. Although some additional funding has been allocated in response to policy shifts in recent years, it has done little to restore balance to the overstretched child welfare system.
Between December 2014 and May 2015, the state saw an 11 percent increase in the number of children in out-of-home care. Simultaneously, funding for child welfare services has actually decreased by 13 percent since 2008 when adjusted for inflation, according to TaxWatch.
Tragically, despite all the fixes, high numbers of Florida children are still dying. This includes children with prior DCF involvement.
Lack of a Child Welfare “Roadmap”
The Children’s Campaign believes further transformation of Florida’s child welfare system will be challenging until the historical use of Title IV-E waiver dollars is revisited and re-targeted to ensure that resources are available for the intervention strategies chosen. State dollars to fill in the gaps will be required, regardless of the eventual federal decision on the structure of Title IV-E or its replacement.
In addition, the state needs to stabilize the large pendulum swings in child welfare policies and practices in reaction to high-profile tragedies and crises. These pendulum swings occur largely because there is no unified strategy among all key stakeholders for the best approach to keep children safe and ensure their well-being.
Since many public systems feed into the child welfare system, the solution is broader than simply reforming the child welfare system. Current commissions, cabinets and collaborations do not go far enough in their efforts. Formalized and focused conversations featuring a wider range of voices (e.g. Corrections, Mental Health, Public Health and more) is needed to develop a collaborative and innovative plan for solving the pressing challenges facing Florida’s children and families.
For additional guidance on achieving true and lasting reform in child welfare, Florida could look to the progress that has been made in transforming the state’s juvenile justice system. The groundwork for improved juvenile justice outcomes was laid many years ago through intensive and thoughtful collaboration to change the Florida Department of Juvenile Justice from a “get tough on crime” agency to one that “gets smart on youth justice.”
Despite decades of research showing they are largely ineffective, Florida’s juvenile justice system used to rely heavily on services that emphasized detention, deterrence and discipline. Yet, transforming the system proved to be difficult due to competing ideas and agendas, as well as the lack of buy-in on a singular vision.
DCF Could Look to DJJ for Lessons Learned
To jumpstart the transformation, advocates such as The Children’s Campaign and others called upon Florida leaders to create a blue-ribbon panel to develop a unified plan to reform Florida’s juvenile justice system. In 2007, Governor Charlie Crist authorized the creation of a time-limited “Blueprint Commission.”
The 25 members of the Blueprint Commission included leaders in community, faith, diversity, business, law enforcement and criminal justice. The group reviewed mountains of testimony from experts in criminology and juvenile justice, as well as from members of the public through statewide town hall meetings. The Blueprint Commission’s consolidated report contained 52 recommendations to help guide the Florida Legislature in policy changes.
“Change is never easy,” stated Roy Miller, president of The Children’s Campaign and a senior strategic advisor to The Blueprint Commission. “But, the consensus-building groundwork laid by the Blueprint Commission paved the way for the system reform DJJ has been achieving over the past few years.”
In 2012, under the visionary leadership by Wansley Walters, DJJ began implementing its reform plan, called the Roadmap to System Excellence, based on work of the heralded Florida Juvenile Justice Blueprint Commission. The Roadmap’s overarching goal is to provide every youth touching the juvenile justice system with the right services and/or sanctions, at the right time, and in the right place.
Resource allocations shifted from residential and detention care towards effective prevention and diversion programs, services and treatments. The much-needed collaboration with national and state stakeholders, including families, continued to build the inclusive network necessary for a supportive and successful system.
Public Input and Stakeholder Participation Critical to System Transformation
DJJ’s new, youth-centered system is achieving considerable and promising success, even though chronic problems and gaps remain, and many important Blueprint recommendations have yet to be implemented.
Today, more jurisdictions are offering civil citations, an alternative to arrest program, to children making youthful mistakes than ever before. Civil citations offer youth greater chances of becoming successful, productive adults since the stigma of an arrest record is avoided. In addition, juvenile arrests in Florida are currently at their lowest levels in 30 years. Fewer children are recommitting crimes. Youth are achieving better outcomes, resulting in stronger families and communities.
Cathy Craig-Meyers, executive director of the Florida Juvenile Justice Association, agrees that significant progress has been made with getting kids the right help at the right time since implementation of the Roadmap. She cautions everyone not to take a victory lap quite yet.
“Much of what’s been accomplished has been the lower hanging fruit,” she explained. “There’s still a lot that needs to be done to make it to the finish line.”
Tidal Wave Coming
Florida’s future population and poverty trends make Florida’s current struggles with child welfare pale in comparison. Currently, one in four Florida children live in poverty. If these children lived in one city, it would be the largest city in the state. Nearly 30 percent of Florida’s children struggle with hunger ̶ equivalent in population to the 10th largest city in America.
Florida’s population is expected to grow another 8.9% by the year 2020.
Report after report reveals just how vulnerable Florida families are. According to the 2015 ALICE Report by the United Way of Florida, a startling 45 percent – or 3.2 million – of all Florida families earn too little to afford basic housing, child care, food, healthcare and transportation – despite working one or more jobs. Another study found 47 percent of respondents would not be able to come up with $400 for an emergency expense without borrowing money or selling possessions.
Without significant, transformative change, the number of children suffering the effects of poverty, hunger and homelessness will flood our public systems, which currently are operating without much of a safety net.
To create a better future for Florida’s children, it’s important that we learn from the lessons of the past. Today, more youth touching the juvenile justice system have been given the opportunity for a second chance at success, largely due to the extensive collaboration DJJ undertook in developing a unified vision and plan.
Shouldn’t Florida’s foster children be given the same opportunity?
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This Top Story brought to you by Karen Bonsignori, Roy Miller and Tiffany McGlinchey