TAMPA — Florida child welfare workers too often remove children from their families without first providing counseling that could have kept them in the home, a recent federal study found.
And once in the state's care, some children don't get physical therapy and other specialized services they need and are entitled to, the report stated.
Florida Department of Children and Families and federal officials met last week to discuss the findings and begin work on a plan to tackle the shortcomings identified in the report. It came in a week when a Miami teenager in a foster home live-streamed her suicide on social media and a Hillsborough County child care agency dropped off a 4-year-old foster girl at the wrong home.
The federal Children and Family Services Review has once again thrown a spotlight on the state's child welfare system and raised questions about funding levels and whether the privatization of child welfare is working.
Child welfare agencies say they have done yeoman's work running a system that has received only marginal funding increases during the eight years since the Great Recession. Funding has risen in the past two years, but that has coincided with an uptick in the number of children being taken into care, they say.
To fully meet the needs of the almost 36,000 children now either in foster care or under the watch of the state would take an extra $100 million annually, said Kurt Kelly, a former state lawmaker and chief executive officer of the Florida Coalition for Children, a statewide association that represents community-based care agencies
"We have to right-size this system of care and get extra resources so we can provide these services for these children and families," he said.
But others who work in the foster care system are skeptical that funding is the only problem. Contracts with care agencies were negotiated when the number of children under the watch of the state was well above 40,000. Agencies now care for fewer children but are still not meeting national standards.
"I'm not saying there aren't gaps in funding, but I'm still concerned that when you fail on so many standards there should be an alarm that goes off," said Christina Spudeas, executive director of Florida's Children First, a statewide advocacy organization focused on children's rights. "I would be very surprised if the entire answer is funding."
Child welfare was privatized by state lawmakers over a period of several years, a process completed in 2005. DCF now contracts with 17 "lead" agencies to manage and run foster placement and case management in 20 districts known as circuits across the state.
Direct funding from DCF to those agencies totals $628 million this year — a $14 million increase over last year, DCF figures show.
Lead care agencies are required by law to subcontract some services through other care agencies. The result is that the state dollars also have to go toward several layers of CEOs and executives who run those agencies.
"The report itself is very alarming and causes us to question if it's a lack of funding or a lack of oversight of the way the dollars are being spent," Spudeas said.
The increases in lead agency funding since 2016 ended an eight-year stretch in which annual funding remained flat at $588 million. Adjusted for inflation, that amounted to a 13 percent cut, according to Florida Tax Watch. The agencies do not get more money if there is a spike in the number of children in foster care.
As recently as 2014, case managers were juggling an average of 22 children, well above DCF's standard of 14, according to the Florida Coalition for Children. High workload coupled with low pay resulted in many case managers quitting.
Turnover averaged 37 percent and in some communities was as high as 80 percent, according to a 2015 Florida TaxWatch study funded by the Florida Coalition for Children. Providing time for new case mangers to get up to speed often means children stay longer in the foster care system.
The report called for more front-end investment in services such as Healthy Families Florida, a nonprofit group that provides counseling and other in-home services to families to prevent children being taken into care.
"We only ask the state to pay more where we can get better results," said TaxWatch CEO Dominic Callabro. "You may have to pay a little bit now to avoid paying a hell of a lot more later."
Among the issues the report raised is a shortage of services provided in rural areas and cases where children and families did not get counseling, anger management and other services to tackle issues like domestic and substance abuse.
"We have a particular problem with heroin in some jurisdictions, which has made it a particular problem to leave kids in the home," DCF Secretary Mike Carroll told federal officials at last week's meeting. "We've had trouble keeping up."
In its legislative budget request, DCF's priorities include cost-of-living increases for foster homes and reducing case loads.
"We need to hold all parts of the system of care accountable for performing at the level we expect and we're absolutely committed to continue working towards positive outcomes for every family we serve," said spokeswoman Jessica Sims.
Contact Christopher O'Donnell at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 226-3446. Follow @codonnell_Times.