TALLAHASSEE — More children are coming into Florida's foster care system after a sweeping child-welfare reform law went into effect 19 months ago, but officials say the state is trying to focus on what's best for kids in difficult situations.
"You write laws to respond to the issues of the day, and those change at least annually," said state Sen. Nancy Detert, a Venice Republican and sponsor of a number of foster care reforms. "So our focus in today's world is the best interests of the child in every way — safety, quality of life, the best location — and that's all we can do."
Last month, according to the state Department of Children and Families, there were 22,635 children in what's known as out-of-home care — or 5.53 per 1,000 children in the general population. In June 2014, the month before the law took effect, there were 19,299 kids in foster care, or 4.76 per 1,000.
The 2014 law was nearly a year in the making, during which media reports on the deaths of youngsters already "known" to the Department of Children and Families roiled the public and galvanized lawmakers to plug what they saw as holes in the child-welfare system.
The law required more transparency from the department about children's deaths and more accountability from community-based care agencies that oversee adoption and foster care. It also required child-protective investigators to devise safety plans that focused on risks to children — rather than, say, relying on parents' promises to stop drinking or allowing abusive boyfriends in the home.
Department of Children and Families Secretary Mike Carroll said he thinks the law "had some bearing on" the increase of children in foster care.
"Because (lawmakers) made it clear that they want a safety-first approach, and I tend to agree with that in many areas," he said.
However, Carroll said, a sound approach to child protection isn't a question of removing more or fewer kids.
"It's about us getting better at making the assessments at a level that we need to make — and having the services available that we need to have to keep kids safe — so that when we do remove, we're moving the right kids," he said. "You have to be removing the right kids for the right reasons."
The numbers have also attracted a national critic of out-of-home care who warns that Florida is heading back into what he calls a "foster care panic," in which child-protection workers have incentives to "take the child and run."
"Caseworkers like to say, 'We're damned if we do and damned if we don't,' " said Richard Wexler, executive director of the National Coalition for Child Protection Reform. "But that's not true. In all the years I have followed child welfare, I have never seen a caseworker, supervisor or other agency staffer fired, demoted, suspended, reprimanded, or even slapped on the wrist for taking away too many children.
"(But) all of these things have happened to workers — and agency chiefs — when one child was left in a home and something went wrong."
Wexler said he has followed Florida more than any other state, thanks to what "was and remains the worst foster care panic we have ever seen." It was sparked by the 1998 death of 6-year-old Kayla McKean, whose father reported her missing on Thanksgiving. More than 500 volunteers helped to search for the girl before her father confessed and led investigators to her body.
In 2004, 19,932 children entered foster care in Florida, according to the Administration for Children and Families at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. In 2006, 21,999 kids entered foster care — nearly as many as the total number currently in out-of-home care statewide.
The trend reversed after Bob Butterworth became secretary of the Department of Children and Families in 2007. One of his top administrators, Don Winstead, convinced the federal government to grant a waiver that meant many at-risk children could stay in their homes while their parents got needed services with federal funds.
"The child must be safe, period — we all agree with that," Butterworth said. "And now Florida is one of the states that can bring services into the home, with federal funds, to keep the child there and to bring services to the family, not just the child. That works in a lot of cases, but not all."
By 2008, 15,838 children entered foster care — a decrease of 6,161 in two years. By 2009, it was down to 14,331.
"If you talk to the kids that have aged out (out of foster care), a number of them will say, 'I would much rather have stayed with my natural parents and been abused by them than being abused by foster parents,' " Butterworth said.
Wexler contends that there is abuse in one-quarter to one-third of foster care placements.
"So instead of taking children from danger and placing them in safety, it's often the other way around," he said.
Detert is sponsoring a bill for the 2016 legislative session that would, in part, give foster children more preference about where they'd like to live and with whom. She agrees that "any kid would rather stay in their own home and be abused," but added, "That's why we don't let 8- and 9-year-olds decide their future at age 8 and 9."
She said her own mother had been abusive, "and I would not have wanted to go and live with strangers. I'd rather live with occasional abuse." She laughed shortly. "But it depends on the level. Maybe if your mom just has anger issues, you could deal with that."