DCF program to help former foster children comes up short

TALLAHASSEE — A state program that helps former foster children become functioning adults doesn't know how many of its youth are skipping classes or how they are spending their monthly stipends.

The Independent Living Program is supposed to help young adults pursue an education, learn to care for themselves and enter the work force. The youth receive government assistance toward the costs of rent, utilities, transportation and food.

But many of the youth go alarmingly unsupervised, sometimes with tragic results, according to several reports drafted by state auditors and child advocates since 2004.

Such negligence contributed to the death of 3-month-old Emanuel Murray, whose mother, Jasmine Bedwell, then 17, was part of an Independent Living Program in Hillsborough County. Authorities say her abusive boyfriend, Richard Anthony McTear, then 21, barged into her apartment, took her son, and threw him from a moving vehicle on a highway last year.

State officials determined Bedwell never should have been allowed to live alone. And they faulted her case manager for not being aware of the boyfriend's criminal background.

The solution state legislators have come up with? The Senate's Children, Families and Elder Affairs Committee wants another audit of the program, the fourth review in seven years.

This tepid response has incited some advocates, who say the state must keep better tabs on how it spends money and cares for children.

"We are just dropping the ball on our parenting," said Diane Zambito, executive director of Connected by 25 in Tampa, a nonprofit that helps foster children find jobs and pursue an education. "Someone in the Legislature, someone there has to make it important and hold people accountable."

Sen. Ronda Storms, R-Brandon, said the new report would be the most sweeping review to date of the program's finances.

"There is no reason at all that those kids should have that level of poor supervision, that we should tolerate that," said Storms, who chairs the Children, Families and Elder Affairs Committee.

The Department of Children and Families' Independent Living Program grew from 1,300 youths in 2006 to more than 2,000 in 2009.

State audits concluded that services available to help youth transition into independent adults were "limited and fragmented." Annual reports by foster care advocates have also urged the state to put a firm rein on the program.

Many services are contracted out to independent agencies, which are required by state law to provide DCF with monthly reports detailing the number of youth served and programs' costs.

But the reports don't speak to the kind of care the young adults, ages 18 to 23, are receiving.

That's because, in many cases, no one has bothered to ask.

A 2008 state survey of youth and young adults in Independent Living found less than half the respondents were receiving the care they needed.

Derrick Riggins moved into student housing at Florida A&M University after he was kicked out of his Orlando foster care when he turned 18. He stumbled through financial aid applications on his own and found a place to live off campus when the dorms closed to students during spring break.

It wasn't until the end of his sophomore year that a caseworker informed him he shouldn't have taken out student loans. The state pays public school tuition for former foster children.

Otherwise, Riggins said he received a $900 check in the mail each month with a newsletter announcing activities at his local Independent Living center 260 miles away. No one checked in with him to ask about his grades, finances or health.

"They just assumed I was doing good," said Riggins, now a 24-year-old social worker in Tampa.

The $35.6 million program also has its share of financial troubles. It saw a $6.8 million deficit in 2009, and DCF expects it to cost $13.4 million more than its funding level this year.

The budget shortfalls fall on the backs of the local contractors, who must decide whether to continue to provide services after state funding runs out.

Don Winstead, DCF's deputy secretary, said the department will comply with any audit required by the Legislature.

"The more information we can have about oversight and how we can do a better job of serving these young people, the better," he said. "We view it as a positive development."

Winstead acknowledged previous reports have already revealed problems that remain unsolved.

"It shows us in some cases that young adults are not as prepared to transition to adulthood as much as we would like," said Winstead.

The state should require contractors to track the progress of its youth, say advocates. If former foster children aren't opening bank accounts, excelling in school and paying their bills on time, the contractors shouldn't receive funding, said Jane Soltis, chair of the Independent Living Services Advisory Council, a state board that makes annual recommendations to DCF.

"It is important and critical whenever we are using taxpayer dollars, public dollars, to provide services," she said. "We are not where we want to be. We are not doing a good enough job."

Storms said tweaking contract requirements is a likely future step.

"That's what we want to do," she said. "But in order to do that, we need to know all the failures."

Cristina Silva can be reached at (850) 224-7263 or csilva@sptimes.com.

DCF program to help former foster children comes up short 03/03/10 [Last modified: Thursday, March 4, 2010 7:54am]

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