Monday, July 23, 2018
Public safety

Romano: A blood-stained crib makes the argument for foster care over unfit parents

The evidence suggests we have been overzealous.

Numbers say child protection investigators in the sheriff's offices of Hillsborough, Pasco and Pinellas counties have been removing children from potentially dangerous homes at a higher rate than the state average.

And the critics say investigators err too often on the side of removal, and judges almost never overrule their decisions.

To which I say:

Thank goodness.

If you read the story this week of a 1-year-old Port Richey girl who was shot in the arm while in her crib during a drive-by shooting that might have been drug- and/or gang-related, then maybe you agree.

It should always be disturbing to think about children being taken away from their families, but it's far worse to imagine the children left behind in dangerous or unlivable circumstances.

"We consistently tell the CPI (child protection investigation) investigators not to be worried about the state rates or statistics," said Pasco County Sheriff Chris Nocco. "Look at each child, each case, individually. Do whatever is necessary for that child's best interests."

It's serious business to take a child away from his or her home, and it should never be done as a matter of routine. There are many who caution that children in foster or group homes are at a greater risk for entanglements later in life, and those warnings should not be minimized.

So, yes, it's worthwhile to monitor the number of cases. And it's important to have safeguards and checks in place. But a parent's protest should never supersede a child's safety.

"If you talk to anyone in CPI, you'll hear them say the situation is worse now than any time in the last 30 years," said St. Petersburg City Council member Amy Foster, who is executive director of the Guardian ad Litem Foundation of Tampa Bay. "We're not talking about dirty houses. We're talking about the worst situations you can imagine. Honestly, they're leaving children in some homes that, I would think, anyone who was a responsible, attentive parent would be horrified."

In truth, the problem lies not with the decision to remove children from homes. That may be the most dramatic part of the story, but the real problems are at the front and back ends of the situation.

This state has a huge problem when it comes to funding programs to deal with drug rehabilitation, mental illness and economic disparities. In fact, most studies indicate Florida is near the bottom of the nation in per capita funding for mental health services, and near the top in income gap. That's the front end of the problem that leads to unfit parents. That's the problem that leads to a John Jonchuck.

On the back end, our foster care system is stretched to the max, which leads to situations such as the one in Hills­borough this summer when children were sleeping on air mattresses in office buildings because there were no suitable beds available elsewhere.

That scenario is unacceptable, but it's still preferable to a drive-by shooting or the hundreds of other cases of children being abused or neglected.

"I know it's got to be heartbreaking to see the expressions on the faces of kids who are being removed from the only environment they've ever known," Nocco said. "But we're seeing cases of homes with feces on the floor and cockroaches crawling over food. The kids? They don't know any better. That's their reality. And we have to show them that, no, there is a better life out there.

Hillsborough, Pasco and Pinellas are three of just six counties in the state where the Department of Children and Families has agreed to outsource its child investigative units to the sheriff's offices.

So maybe it's not coincidental that all three counties are above the state average in the rate of children removed from their homes. Maybe those child protection investigators, who are not deputies, are more empowered or better trained to identify and intervene in dangerous situations.

And if they occasionally err on the side of caution when it comes to a child's welfare, I would think the tradeoff is worth it. If you doubt that, there's a blood-stained crib in Port Richey you might want to consider.

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