New legislation in the Florida Senate calls for reducing funding for all community-based care lead agencies by 25 percent. That amount then would be used to create so-called equity for all lead agencies in the state contracted to provide child welfare, foster care and adoption services. Although there may be some areas in Florida that believe they are not receiving adequate funding, clearly the solution should not be to steal from other communities.
In 1996, Florida began a comprehensive redesign of the state's child welfare system with a transition to outsourced community-based care in response to growing problems and public dissatisfaction with the Department of Children and Families. Substantial achievements have occurred:
• Safety measures such as case workers making regular visits with children in care have improved greatly.
• Permanency measures are also improving, such as the increasing number of adoptions and the reduction in the length of time children stay in the system.
• Child well-being measures also have improved as many agencies have safely and effectively served children in their own homes without removing them from their families.
Kids Central Inc. is the nonprofit lead agency for Citrus, Hernando, Lake, Marion and Sumter counties. We have worked very hard to become an agency that focuses on the preservation of families — those already involved in the child welfare system and the many other families living in the communities we serve.
The improvements in our circuit are among the most impressive in the state. In 2006, there were more than 4,000 children in the local child welfare system. Today, thanks largely to local communities' willingness to focus on keeping children and families together whenever possible, there are less than 1,700 children in the system. This has provided resources to serve thousands of other children and families without them having to enter the formal child welfare system.
Our proven successes are now essentially being deemed null and void by this unfair legislation that makes our community a budget target for state legislators influenced by some of the larger, but still poorly functioning districts. A Senate budget provision would base 25 percent of each circuit's budget on a process called equity funding, which would reward circuits for keeping too many children in foster care rather than strengthening and preserving families. This is wrong.
It would significantly reduce child welfare funding here and in a few other high-performing districts, and would eliminate or severely limit many of the essential services that have contributed to our success. Without these services, our communities will likely see an increase in the number of children that experience child abuse or neglect and we will return to the days of an overloaded foster care system.
Equity funding takes tax dollars from organizations that have performed well by safely reducing the number of children in foster care and giving those dollars to organizations that are under-performing. It rewards failure while punishing success.
Florida has received an annual increase in federal Title IV-E child welfare funding of more than $3 million per year for the past three years, all of which has been allocated to circuits with large numbers of foster children. In other words, these circuits are already receiving equity funding without taking money from other communities.
If a significant portion of a lead agency's budget is based solely on the number of children in the traditional child welfare system (foster care), they will have a financial incentive to have more children enter the system and then keep them there for as long as possible. Those are the exact opposite outcomes that children deserve and our communities demand.
We urge the public to consider this a call to action on behalf of all children and families. Please contact your state legislators and encourage them to oppose the Senate's one-sided legislation. Legislator contact information can be found on Kids Central's website at kidscentralinc.org.
Children, families and taxpayers deserve an efficient system of care. They certainly do not deserve a Legislature that rewards agencies which are not doing the best job they can for our children.
Cynthia Schuler is the chief executive officer at Kids Central Inc.