Child Welfare Reform: Improve Community-Based Care
Florida’s child welfare system is charged with the difficult task of keeping the state’s most vulnerable children safe and protected. Unfortunately, with each high profile tragedy and crisis, the state’s child welfare system swings widely between placing the safety of children as paramount or preserving families at all costs. This pendulum swing is made more difficult with a system that is both private and public, local and statewide. The result is a system that struggles to find balance and a firm foundation, leading to systemic confusion and problems.
Debate continues in Florida whether to return to child welfare services provided by the Department of Children and Families or continue investing in community-based care (CBC) lead agencies. American Children’s Campaign supports CBCs as the most viable option for Florida’s children and families in crisis, but critical reforms need to be made.
CBC Boards Should Reflect the People They Serve
In Florida, the CBC lead agency is responsible for building and managing their local system of care to keep children safe and healthy. It’s a demanding task to make sure all local organizations meet the expectations of their contracts and keep each other informed.
Unfortunately, there is a lack of community representation present on some CBC Governing Boards–the people that oversee the lead agencies. Many Boards lack knowledgeable stakeholders, diversity and sufficient numbers. Despite efforts by the Florida Legislature to improve the child welfare system, as well as accountability and transparency within CBC lead agencies, no efforts to improve representation on CBC Governing Boards have been successful.
Without strong local accountability, the very premise of community-based care comes into question.
Local Oversight Loses Impact When CBCs Oversee Huge Geographic Areas
When Florida began privatizing child welfare, it was based on the belief that a state-run, “one-size-fits-all” child welfare system wouldn’t be as effective as community-based care managed by local, nonprofit lead agencies.
It was impossible to foresee the rise of mega-CBC lead agencies that manage multiple child welfare circuits after other lead agencies were disbanded or had their contracts terminated.
This was not Florida’s original vision. The original vision was for lead agencies to manage individual counties at least in major urban areas. Changes made to law in 2021 created requirements for DCF to collaborate with local community alliances where a lead agency cannot feasibly exist. This will allow DCF to ensure local control and allow DCF to provide alternatives to lead agency services.
Stewardship of State Funds is Compromised When Executives are Overcompensated
CBCs receive hundreds of millions of state dollars to keep the children in their care safe. Most advocates agree that statewide dollars devoted to child welfare aren’t enough to cover all gaps in services.
While many CBCs have reasonable salaries for executives, others do not. Confidence in the stewardship of these public dollars is compromised when governing boards dole out paychecks to their top bosses that are larger than some state university presidents, or heads of public school districts and area hospitals. Changes to Florida law in 2021 provides some transparency by requiring DCF to publish any compensation exceeding 150% of the DCF Secretary’s salary, and requiring the Department to conduct a multi-year review of revenues, expenditures, and financial position of CBC lead agencies.
Black Foster Children are More Likely to be in Facility Based Placements and Less Likely to See the Doctor
According to Florida’s Department of Children and Families, 29% of children in the state’s foster care system are Black. Black children in Florida’s foster care system are disproportionately housed in facility-based rather than home-based foster options. They make up 34% of the population in group care, 29% in residential treatment centers, and 33% of the “Other” category. From 2019-2020, Black children in Florida’s child welfare system were less likely to receive dental (29.4% compared to 61% of their White peers) and medical services (30% compared to 60%), exit out of home care (30.4% compared to 62%), and achieve permanency through adoption than White children (25.3% compared to 65%). Black children and other children of color dependent on the state deserve equitable care and opportunities for permanency.
Both Foster Families and Foster Children Need Support
Children who have experienced abuse or neglect, and even those who have witnessed domestic violence, are vulnerable to lifelong negative impacts. Children ages 0 to 5 are the most vulnerable. While children with substantiated instances of abuse or neglect are connected with Early Steps, the state’s program that ensures children at-risk of developmental delays receive necessary services when they would make the largest impact, this policy needs to be extended to all children in contact with DCF. Trauma-informed services need to be available to older children as well. Addressing the issues throughout childhood can help end the cycle of involvement with the child welfare system.
The state needs to support the adults who help care for children when they are unable to live in their parent’s home. Foster parents and relative caregivers often need to supplement the small stipend the state provides to access child care, purchase new clothes, and other items children need. Services and support for relative and foster parents often vary by location in the state.
Guardian ad Litem Should Continue to Provides Services to Florida’s Abused and Neglected Children
Guardian ad Litem (GAL), the program that provides a voice for children in the dependency process, is a success story in the state’s child welfare system. The program has expanded its coverage of children involved with the child welfare system while supporting policy that will allow children in out-of-home care to have a measure of normalcy similar to their peers. The program needs to continue to be a funding priority and should be expanded to provide a voice for all dependent children.
A Full Review and Creation of a Blueprint for the Child Welfare System is Needed
Policymakers continue to work to address the issues facing the child welfare system. In 2021, changes were made to improve Family Finding, aging out of foster care, priority placement options, siblings in foster care connections, reduce/ease transitions in out-of-home care and much more. These changes are important steps to protect and support children in the child welfare system, but more needs to be done.
Quick fixes, often in response to tragedies, can cause the child welfare pendulum to swing widely between keeping families together at almost all costs OR removing children too quickly from home. Historically, this has been the pattern and root causes have not been addressed effectively.
While reunification is a system priority, so is ensuring the best interests of the child.
This is a struggle that cannot be fixed by examining one death at a time or even one CBC system at a time. Without a broader review, allowing statewide consensus and action, improvements to the CBCs and the child welfare system will be painfully incremental rather than systemic.
- Oppose locking up dependent child victims of abuse, neglect, trafficking and other traumas. These children have often been underserved by the state’s child welfare and juvenile justice systems due to lack of needed services and resources. Removing their freedom continues to victimize children who have already suffered.
- Ensure that the child welfare system is serving the children and families in the system: The state must support adults who help care for children when they are unable to live in their parent’s home. Foster parents and relative caregivers often supplement the small stipend the state provides to access child care, purchase new clothes, and other items children need. Caregivers also need access to respite care.
- Refer young dependent children to early steps: Requiring DCF to conduct an early needs assessment and to refer vulnerable young children (ages 0-3) who have contact with the child welfare system to the Early Steps program will provide children with critical early intervention services.
- Improve foster parent recruitment and retention practices. Expand the successful South Florida Foster and Adoptive Parent Association (SFFAPA) model foster parent peer advocate and training program. This support includes guidance on everything from how to parent trauma-exposed children, and guiding foster parents throughout the child welfare process and courtroom proceedings.
- Improve community-based care: American Children’s Campaign supports child welfare services within the community based care model and questions the debate by some to return direct care to the Florida Department of Children & Families. Reforms and improvements, however, in the CBC model are warranted. Examples include addressing board governance composition in order to ensure a broad range of knowledgeable stakeholders, diversity and sufficient numbers are involved. The total number of children, and geography overseen must be examined more carefully in order to align with appropriate oversight. Stewardship of public dollars is paramount, including executive compensation in some areas of the state.
- Support and expand the guardian ad litem program: The successful program needs to be able to provide a voice for all children in dependency proceedings.
- The creation of a child welfare blueprint: Keep the child welfare system from swinging blindly between extremes and address core issues within the system with stakeholder input.
American Children’s Campaign Priority Bill Highlights
What American Children’s Campaign is Saying…
- Florida Took in Thousands of Kids, then Failed to Keep Them Safe — USA Today. Investigative series shows the number of foster homes caring for four or more children nearly doubled between 2014 and 2018, and the number of children under 10 sent to group homes doubled.
- Pasco Sheriff Uses Grades and Abuse Histories to Label Schoolchildren Potential Criminals — Tampa Bay Times. This news investigation uncovered that the Pasco Sheriff’s Office keeps a secret list of kids to determine who could “fall into a life of crime” based on factors like whether they’ve been abused or gotten a D or an F in school.
- A Data Study on Foster Children who Refused Placement in Hillsborough County—Robert Latham, Miami University School of Law, This report recommends a close look at the existing placement array in Hillsborough County to determine which portions of it are contributing to instability. The report also recommends creating an escalation policy for children who are repeatedly ejected from placements, to reduce the harms that lead them to refuse placement or run away.
- Child Fatality Prevention—Florida Department of Children and Families. Information on child fatalities in the state of Florida including hotline information and access to CIRRT reports.
- Innocents Lost—Miami Herald. An investigative series using child death reports from DCF to document the dynamics of abuse and neglect, as well as the lives of children who have died in the care of Florida’s child welfare system.
- Branded for Life: Undertreated and Underdiagnosed Mental Health Hurts Children and Families—American Children’s Campaign. National data tells us that adults with mental health conditions are overwhelmingly parents. Parents living with untreated mental illness are often unable to adequately care for their children. Mental illness is a disease and, if left untreated, can have a significant effect on children’s well-being.
- Child Welfare Reform – Florida’s Come Far, but Not Far Enough—American Children’s Campaign. Although progress has been made in reforming Florida’s child welfare system, more progress is needed, especially in the areas of children’s safety and well-being.
- Challenges Facing Florida’s Community-Based Child Welfare System
Disclaimer: These links to third-party websites are provided as a convenience and for informational purposes only. They do not constitute an endorsement or approval by American Children’s Campaign or its affiliate organizations and partners.