The Florida Department of Children and Families is right to call for a timely and "comprehensive" review of Hillsborough County’s foster care system. Though the probe is a reaction to a recent case involving a child who was left unattended, the review is a chance to study the roots of Hillsborough’s heavy caseloads and to explore what’s causing gaps in care that could endanger vulnerable children.
DCF’s announcement Monday came a week after the county’s lead community care provider, Eckerd Connects, fired nonprofit Youth and Family Alternatives after reporting instances of staff failing to supervise older foster children. Eckerd reported YFA to the state’s abuse hot line and the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office, and moved to terminate its $9.2 million contract. Eckerd will work with YFA until May and while it seeks bids for a successor.
The move comes after YFA dropped off a teenage girl early on Jan. 24 in front of an Eckerd office in Tampa. Eckerd said the girl was alone and hungry, and a subsequent investigation by the agency found that this was "not an isolated incident." In an interview with the Tampa Bay Times this week, YFA officials acknowledged it made a mistake by not escorting the teenager into the office, and said it fired the caseworker — a new hire — who was responsible. But the agency insists it had a good track record with the 1,700 children under its care in the county. And it questioned why Eckerd would cancel the contract immediately instead of working with YFA on improving the operation.
This is a difficult population for child welfare agencies, as some older teens who bounce through the foster system have suffered from abuse and neglect, and may resist going to school or foster homes for a variety of reasons. It’s unclear in this case why two well-meaning partners with an established working relationship could not have worked through what both rightly acknowledge was an error in judgment and procedure. But the interests of children in the system are paramount, and DCF’s review should shed light on this case and on the larger problem with the massive caseload of foster children in Hillsborough.
DCF has assembled a team of nine child welfare experts to identify "systemic issues," from why Hillsborough removes more children from their homes than any other county to how it cares for hard-to-place older teens. Child welfare advocates point to a host of factors to explain why almost 4,000 children across the county are either in foster care or at risk of being removed. Drug dependency stemming from the opioid crisis, Hillsborough’s rapid growth and the cyclic nature of dysfunction within at-risk families all account in part for Hillsborough’s high caseload.
The DCF panel, only the third of its kind to review the state of a community foster case system since early 2014, should give the state, private sector providers and the public a fuller sense of what’s happening on the ground and what real-world solutions should be on the table.
There is no doubt that greater funding could improve training for staff, reduce caseloads and free up resources to better target programs to troubled teens. But the review also needs to explore ways to build new capacity in the county to host older teens — at least in emergency situations. It should provide a framework for the state and its contractors to be more strategic in addressing acute problems. And it needs to find a smoother way to hold all the moving parts in the child welfare system — law enforcement, caseworkers, community providers, the state and the courts — more accountable.
There is no shortage of grief in the child protection business in Florida, but it’s also important to remember that social workers and volunteers show up every day to make a positive difference in the worst situations. This is the spirit that should drive the state’s review.