Child Welfare Reform: Improve Community-Based Care

Policymakers’ continued work towards improving the child welfare system have resulted in important legislative changes over the last few years. These changes have helped protect and support children in the child welfare system, but more needs to be done.

Florida’s child welfare system is charged with the difficult task of keeping the state’s most vulnerable children safe and protected, while minimizing the trauma of family separation. 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, and lacks research on best practices. The result is a system that struggles to find balance and a firm foundation, leading to systemic confusion and problems.

Workforce and oversight issues plague the system causing issues for both the private and public providers. 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 still need to be made.

A Full Review and Creation of a Blueprint for the Child Welfare System is Needed

Without a broad review and further research allowing statewide consensus and action, improvements to the CBCs and the child welfare system will be painfully slow and often misguided rather than targeted and informed.

Children Suffer from Lack of Time-Sensitive Permanency

Evidence-based best practices require that a child be in out-of-home care – or without a permanent solution to their involvement with the child welfare system – for no more than 12 months. The state has attempted to place restrictions on length of time children remain in foster care, but this is not always possible due to the differing circumstances in each child welfare case. Exceptions in policy exist to ensure that parents who are actively working to get their children back aren’t stopped short by the deadline. Unfortunately, the separation between policy and practice – or using loopholes made only for specific circumstances in cases that don’t meet the criteria – can lead to children languishing in the foster care system for years without permanency. According to DCF only 37% of cases achieve reunification within 12 months, and over half of all cases take 24 months to close– double Florida’s statutory maximum.

Recent policy changes have increased a relative-caregiver’s stipend to the same level as foster parents, which will hopefully provide a more permanent option with family for children who are not safe at home. The more Florida invests in positive, constructive options to keep children in their support networks while out of the home, the better our child welfare policy will serve their best interests.

Black Foster Children are More Likely to be in Facility Based Placements and Less Likely to See the Doctor

Black children in Florida’s foster care system are two times more likely to be placed in out-of-home care and stay in foster care an average of 55% longer than White children. The lack of family foster homes deprives children of the support of a family structure and leads to more placements in group care and residential treatment centers. Black youth are overrepresented in these types of placements with 63% being placed in either group or residential care. From 2019-2020, Black children in Florida’s child welfare system were 31% less likely to receive dental and medical services. Black children and other children of color dependent on the state deserve equitable healthcare and opportunities for permanency.

Both Foster Families and Foster Children Need Support

Children who have experienced abuse or neglect, and 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, this policy needs to be extended to all children in contact with DCF. Trauma-informed services need to be available to older children. Addressing trauma throughout childhood can help end the cycle of involvement with the child welfare system.

Florida 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.

Children Need to be Children and Not Primary Caregivers

“Caregiving youth” is defined as children or adolescents who provide significant or substantial assistance to relatives or household members needing help because of physical or mental illness, disability, or frailty. According to the American Association of Caregiving Youth, there are approximately 290,000 caregiving youth in Florida. Caregiving can be an incredible opportunity to build closeness and connection across generations and can lead to feelings of pride, the development of new skills and awareness, empathy and compassion. However, caregiving can also increase stress placed on youth and can make them more vulnerable to anxiety and social isolation. Florida needs to address the needs of caregiving youth by understanding the true scope of the issue and creating a Florida Caregiving Youth Act to protect children from the negative impacts and to support families and children who are caring for relatives.

The Child Welfare Workforce is in Crisis

The workforce crisis has affected every job market in Florida. This crisis has been especially hard on jobs that struggled to find quality employees before COVID – including child welfare. Florida is one of 11 states with a critical need for child welfare workers. Child welfare agencies struggle to recruit and retain skilled workers, which leads to children falling through the cracks. Currently, over half of all new caseworkers will leave their position within the first 18 months. High turnover rates lead to youth receiving inconsistent care and vastly worse outcomes. The leading causes of high turnover are low wages, high caseloads, and management practices that do not support workforce development and retention. DCF recommends caseloads of 10-12 children per caseworker, but the average Florida caseload is actually 20 children per case manager. Despite high caseloads, child welfare workers in Florida are paid 18% less than the national average.

Fixing the workforce issue needs to start with the basics. Florida’s child welfare workers use their own vehicle for their important work at a reimbursement rate of $0.44.5 per mile. This places Florida’s rate 14 cents per mile under the national standard which can equate to almost a thousand dollars per year lost. Florida also needs to address entry compensation. Many Florida child welfare workers in the state make much less than the national average for the same work. Low entry pay, insignificant benefits that actually remove total compensation, and high caseloads lead to turnover and additional stress on the system.

CBC Boards Need to Return to the Original Intent, Cover Local Area, Reflect the People They Serve, and Ensure the Dollars Provided Help Serve the Children

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. 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.

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.

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. Widespread measures to promote transparency, accountability, and community involvement are needed to ensure CBCs serve their intended purpose.

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

CIRRT reports are investigations that are required for all child fatalities reported to the department where the deceased child or another child in the family was the subject of a verified report of abuse or neglect during the previous 12 months. CIRRT reports are limited in scope. Recently, CIRRT was expanded to include the sexual abuse of children in out of home care, but more incidents of abuse need to be subject to review.

A 2020 USA Today investigation found that DCF and 17 private agencies sent about 170 children to live in foster homes despite evidence that abuse had occurred. Expanding CIRRT reports to all those investigated by the DCF in the past 24 months, including unsubstantiated reports of 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.

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.

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 for children whose cases need closer attention

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.

Support

  • Stop the practice of returning justice-involved children to the child welfare system by reforming community reentry with appropriate housing, treatment, and other services provided through funding from the Department of Juvenile Justice for post detention and hardware secure residential placements.
  • Reexamine the options available to children who won’t thrive in traditional foster care placements.
  • Prioritize access to mental health services to keep children out of the child welfare system, reduce substance abuse, protect them from in-school danger, and prevent entry into the juvenile justice system.
  • Expand access to truama-responsive, research proven services to children who are impacted by Adverse Childhood Expriences (ACEs) in foster care, juvenile justice, and human trafficking.
  • Protect and expand the successful volunteer model of Florida’s Guardian ad Litem program. Review and improve the recurring situations in which an attorney ad litem must be automatically assigned to dependency cases.
  • Require Community Based Care programs to develop consistent methods and best practices based on proven successful models for foster parent recruitment and retention.
  • Expand Critical Incident Rapid Response Requirements so more cases involving serious child harm receive the proper scrutiny, including 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.
  • Improve the governance model of Community Based Care agencies and limit the number of judicial circuits served and maximum caseloads.
  • Create a Blueprint Commission to examine and make recommendations to improve Florida’s child welfare system.
  • 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.

Legislation

American Children’s Campaign Priority Bill Highlights

Additional Resources

  • 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.
  • Challenges Facing Florida’s Community-Based Child Welfare System – Florida TaxWatch. The increased removal of mistreated children from homes has left them in the foster care system that was already lacking resources. The lack of resources leaves vulnerable children in need of services that staff cannot maintain. This results in children stuck in the system even after they age out and millions of dollars in cost to taxpayers.

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.