The heart-pounding shootout between Volusia County law enforcement and a 12-year-old boy and 14-year-old girl continues to shock the nation. Just yesterday, two weeks after the incident, State Attorney R.J. Larizza held a news conference on the case that garnered national attention. Although many are still reeling, child advocates aligned with The Children’s Campaign believe it wasn’t a matter if a “Bonnie and Clyde” youth rampage could happen, but when.
Volusia County Sheriff Mike Chitwood called both Florida’s child welfare and juvenile justice systems “broken.” But unpacking the reasons for why this tragedy happened, which appeared to some to be a potential suicide-by-cop in the making, is more complicated.
A Tragedy in the Making
Historically, re-entry half-way houses, group homes and residential treatment centers were an important part of the juvenile justice and child welfare system’s continuum of services. In years past, these facilities often had high levels of 24/7 therapeutic and educational support, as well as the bed space to keep larger sibling groups together, features lacking in nearly all traditional foster homes.
Group homes began to fall out of favor in the past two decades as “child welfare reform” initiatives nationwide called for less restrictive, more family-like settings.
From 2004 to 2013, according to Casey Family Programs, there was a 34% decrease in the placement of children in group home settings. Florida privatized its child welfare system through a phased in process that began in 1997 and was completed in 2005. Shortly thereafter, Florida’s juvenile justice system began eliminating its reentry services and reducing its community based therapeutic services. Its money was shifted to the adult corrections system.
Kids Being Abandoned in Cracks in the System
Although some progress has been achieved from these reforms, they’ve also caused system shifts that have allowed our state’s neediest children to be left behind routinely.
The consequences have been screamed across Florida news headlines to anyone paying the slightest bit of attention. Kids violating terms of their probation and falling deeper into the juvenile justice system. An on-going struggle to recruit and retain quality foster homes. Sibling groups – whose main source of stability is each other – being routinely split up, not unlike, to be brutally honest, the immigration mess. Parents so desperate to get help for their children, they give up custody. A core group of “unplaceable children” sleeping in government buildings and even gas stations as highly paid “non-profit” child welfare executives refuse to re-orient their systems of care.
The tearful father of the 14-year-old shooter in Volusia County recently defended her on Inside Edition against claims she is an “evil” criminal mollycoddled by the system. “My daughter isn’t a thug…she steals puppies. What kind of gangster steals puppies,” he exclaimed.
It’s relatively easy to point fingers at the child, the child’s parents, judges who must make difficult placement decisions every day, DCF, DJJ or even a “broken system.”
It’s harder to admit the truth: By action and through inaction, Florida has allowed these children to continue falling through cracks in our child welfare, juvenile justice and mental health systems – for years. In essence, they have been mostly abandoned.
A Bleak Horizon
Law enforcement was reportedly called 289 times last year to the Florida United Methodist Children’s Home at which the Volusia County troubled youth were placed. Hindsight is always 20/20. But hardly anyone – not even the faith-based children’s home – believed their program can address the deep mental health needs children are presenting these days. And certainly not the children who participated in the shootout. One of the children had experienced the revolving-door of Florida’s problematic Baker Act services.
Without bold state policy changes and investments in child welfare, juvenile justice and mental health that will finally give our neediest children the preventative mental and behavioral health services and appropriate therapeutic placements they need, it is inevitable that more children will become a danger to themselves and others.
Time is of the essence. The federal Family First Preservation Act, which puts further limits on funding for group homes, goes into effect on October 1st.
Florida, isn’t it time to truly address these issues or will we simply await the next tragedy?
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This Top Story is brought to you by Roy Miller and Karen Bonsignori