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 (DCF) 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. Florida’s 2021 legislative session made incremental improvements by adding provisions for conflicts of interest within the board, codified the standard that possible conflicts cannot be disclosed by board members, and outlined procedures for when conflict occurs.

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. Lead agencies were supposed to manage individual counties at least in major urban areas.

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. To adhere to the vision of locals knowing what is best for their communities, the maximum number of caseloads and judicial circuits for CBCs needs to be defined.

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 provide alternatives to lead agency services. Policy makers must continue to build upon the progress made during the last session to improve oversight in child welfare.

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.

Group homes need the same health and safety oversight regardless of service status. Media has covered multiple stories that depict horrible conditions in group homes.

The state needs to support the adults who help care for children when they are unable to live in their parent’s home. Florida Community Based Care programs need to adopt processes proven to support recruitment and retention and make them equal across the state. Recruiting and retaining foster parents can be improved by providing an additional subsidy per month for the required placement of foster children in an early education or child care program. 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. The American Children’s Campaign opposes inappropriate changes to the Guardian ad Litem (GAL) program and the creation of additional bureaucracy

Current statute allows a dependency judge to appoint an attorney ad litem to any case they feel is too complex for the volunteer model or needs additional legal oversight, and requires the appointment of an attorney ad litem for certain children in dependency who have special needs. Improvements could include specifying the recurring situations to automatically require the appointment of an attorney ad litem.

Each Judicial Circuit in Florida Needs Permanent Dependency Court Judges

Dependency judges oversee dependency arraignments, judicial reviews, status hearings, motion hearings, and conduct trials on issues of child custody, divorces, and child support. In child welfare, dependency judges play a critical role in determining the child’s placement, visitation with the family, and any other needs for the family that need to immediately be addressed. According to the Report of the Commission on Family Courts it is important that the judges assigned to this division have a commitment to this important judicial responsibility and a willingness to participate in education and training programs. Only by open communication among court staff, judges, attorneys, social service providers, and other community leaders will the system provide the best outcome for the child.

Critical Incident Rapid Response (CIRRT) Requirements Need to be Expanded

CIRRT reports are limited in scope. Last session, CIRRT was expanded to include the sexual abuse of children in out-of-home care but more needs to be reviewed. Expanding CIRRT reports to all those with interaction with DCF in the past 24 months and unsubstantiated or verified abuse and neglect while in out of home care will provide higher level trend analysis and a comprehensive understanding of issues facing Child Protective Investigations, foster care, and the abuse hotline. This will allow a closer look at all aspects of interaction with the state’s child welfare system and protect children in the state’s care.

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.

Support

  • 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.

  • Expand Critical Incident Rapid Response requirements: Requiring more child harm to receive the proper scrutiny will provide a better picture of what needs to be addressed within the system. Expanding this important diagnostic tool to include the deaths of children who had any contact with DCF in the past 24 months, and all reports of physical, sexual and mental abuse of children in out of home care – except for reports showing no evidence of abuse – will provide data on the Florida Abuse Hotline, Child Protective Investigations, and possibly dangerous foster homes helping keep more vulnerable children safe.

  • 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. Require Community Based Care programs to develop consistent methods and best practices based on proven successful models for foster parent recruitment and retention.
  • 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.
  • Protect and expand the guardian ad litem program: The successful volunteer model of Florida’s Guardian ad Litem program needs to continue without additional bureaucracy. Review and improve the recurring situations in which an attorney ad litem must be automatically assigned to dependency cases.
  • Expand the number of permanent dependency judges in Florida’s judicial circuits: This critical role needs to be filled by properly trained and experienced judges.
  • 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.

Legislation

American Children’s Campaign Priority Bill Highlights

What American Children’s Campaign is Saying…

Additional Resources

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