In a well-known fable, six blind people develop drastically different “views” of an elephant, comparing it to a wall, snake, spear, tree, fan or rope, depending on which body part they touched.  Similarly, there are differing views on how to ensure the safety and well-being of Florida’s children and further transform the state’s child welfare system.

Whether Florida’s child welfare reform is making headway, still struggling or needs a complete overhaul depends on with whom you speak and what data you view.  It also helps to understand the past.

Once Considered a National Embarrassment

iStock_000003268937_LargeJust twenty years ago, Florida’s foster care system was making headlines for all the wrong reasons. Horrific and needless child deaths shocked citizens.  Foster children were being “lost” in the system.  The lack of foster care beds was so severe that children were sleeping in government offices.  Adoption rates were low. High case backlogs resulted in many children being left at risk. In some districts, children were receiving only one caseworker visit a year.

In 1996, spurred by a belief that the state-run, “one-size-fits all” child welfare system was broken, the Florida Legislature changed direction to begin privatizing child welfare. The premise was locally-managed community-based care (CBC) was more efficient and effective, would enhance child protection and yield better outcomes based on communities’ unique needs.

Just two years later, Florida passed legislation mandating statewide privatization of all foster care and related services. Florida was the second state in the nation to fully privatize child welfare to the extent that it did.

One of the unique features is DCF’s contracts with the CBC lead agencies, all nonprofits, who manage their local child welfare systems of care.  Instead of paying each lead agency a fee for each day a child remains in foster care, which some believe incentivizes agencies to allow kids to languish in care, DCF allocates a share of the state’s total child welfare budget to each lead agency.  In turn, each lead agency is required to provide all needed services to all referred children and families, regardless of the allocated funding level.  The state has a risk pool to provide financial relief to lead agencies if child protective investigations greatly increase their caseloads.  However, it isn’t funded at a true safety net level, especially if there are radical fluctuations in removals.

Florida privatized the bulk of its child welfare services through a phased-in process that was completed by 2005. While foster care, case management and adoption have transitioned from the Department of Children and Families (DCF), child protective investigations, the front line of child welfare, has largely remained with DCF, an agency that has continued to be plagued with role confusion and supervisory issues.  American Children’s Campaign has recommended that the role of sheriffs be expanded in protective service investigations especially in high-density urban areas.

Positive Changes in Permanency and Transparency

reading with babyFlorida has come a considerable way in child welfare reform over the last two decades, but it hasn’t come far enough. On the positive side, Florida has done exceptionally well in finding forever families for children in foster care. In fact, Florida is considered an adoption leader among states as demonstrated by its receipt of a $6.1 million grant award for Federal Fiscal Year 2014, from the Adoption and Legal Guardianship Incentive Payment Program.

According to The Foundation for Government Accountability, a Naples-based conservative think tank, 6500 more Florida children were adopted from 2006 – 2011, than in the eight years immediately preceding it. The number of children being adopted within two years of entering foster care also nearly doubled.

Child welfare transparency has also increased.  Realizing that many child maltreatment fatalities can be prevented, sweeping child welfare reform legislation was passed to increase the expert analysis of child fatalities through Critical Incident Rapid Response Team (CIRRT) reports.  An analysis of 2015 CIRRT reports by American Children’s Campaign shows that CIRRT reviews would be more beneficial if they were expanded to cover more child deaths, rather than just deaths of children with verified abuse in the past 12 months.  DCF has responded by issuing Quality Assurance (QA) reports on child fatalities that fall outside the current, narrow CIRRT guidelines.

Regardless, Florida has a solid B+ rating for its policy and practices surrounding public disclosure of child abuse deaths.

Another encouraging sign is that child welfare caseloads have decreased, although the ratios are still being stretched by a new wave of out-of-home removals.  Lower caseloads not only help reduce caseworker turnover, but also are critical to allowing caseworkers to provide the depth and breadth of services that promote safety and permanence.

Child Safety Efforts Lack Consistency and Follow-up

Several other reports and data show a need for considerable improvement. Florida’s caseload ratios of 22 cases per case manager remain almost double nationally recommended standards. The annual turnover rate among case managers in Florida also remains high ̶ averaging 37 percent statewide, but running as high as 80 percent in certain areas.  Caseworker turnover alone is costing the state approximately $14 million annually, according to Florida TaxWatch.

iStock_000001609244_LargeSafety plans are also being used well beyond DCF guidelines and, in many cases, are not enough to protect children. They require significant buy-in from parents/guardians who truly want to make changes, strong monitoring and enforcement ̶ and are still sometimes unsuccessful. Our analysis of 2015 child deaths receiving a CIRRT review shows that a safety plan was in place in about one-third of the child deaths.

Child welfare predictive analytics currently in use are also controversial.  They are considered either promising and “a new frontier”, or unproven and even troubling due to the potential for an Orwellian-type expansion of government power.

Foster home availability and placement stability are still concerns.  In a June 2015 memo obtained through a public records request by Fox 13 News, DCF Secretary Mike Carroll reminded lead agencies that government offices and hotels were not appropriate sleeping arrangements for foster children due to limited availability of foster homes and therapeutic placements.

Considerable numbers of Florida children are spending significant chunks of their childhood in foster care.  According to the 2015 Q2 CBC Performance Scorecard, only 45% of children exit foster care within 12 months, with nearly half of Florida’s 20 child welfare circuits performing below Florida’s already low 40.5% standard for this indicator.

One of the underlying premises of community-based care is the CBC lead agencies will engage a broad range of stakeholders to build a strong level of community support for foster children.  In several instances, the board of directors of CBC agencies lack the range and breadth of stakeholders needed for a private-public partnership model.  In fact, some CBC lead agencies appear to have opted for small, corporate-style boards that lack the diversity or community oversight necessary for the size of the public operations under them.

Perhaps the most critical review of Florida’s child welfare system is a recent one-sided documentary entitled “Foster Shock” that debuted at the 2016 Palm Beach International Film Festival. Although the documentary honorably conveys horrific stories of children harmed in care, it doesn’t tell the story of all children from a range of settings and experiences so improvements could be spotlighted without bias.  Interviews with foster parents portray a system so stacked against kids that they would never foster again.

High Child Deaths Most Troubling

police lineThe most troubling of all child well-being indicators, however, is that Florida child deaths remain high.

End-of-the-year calculations show that 473 Florida children died in 2015, which is more than the number of child deaths in 2011 ̶ considered an especially bad year for foster children as highlighted by the award-winning “Innocents Lost” news investigation by the Miami Herald. Some blame the increase in deaths on growth in Florida’s population. However, the percentage of children who died despite being known to Florida Department of Children and Families (DCF) remained largely the same (roughly 50%).

Why are high numbers of children still dying despite all the efforts to reform child welfare?

Florida’s Pendulum Swings in Child Welfare

Transforming Florida’s child welfare system further will be challenging until the state stabilizes the large pendulum swings occurring in policies and practices in reaction to high-profile tragedies and crises. These pendulum swings occur primarily because there is no unified strategy among key stakeholders of the best approach for keeping children safe.

It is believed by American Children’s Campaign that the pendulum will continue to swing until the historical use of Title IV-E waiver dollars is revisited and re-targeted to ensure 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.

But that’s not all that’s needed.

Coming in Part Two: Does Child Welfare Need a Roadmap?


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This Top Story brought to you by Karen Bonsignori, Roy Miller, Greer Hackett and Tiffany McGlinchey

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