Four foster children were housed in tents in the yard of an unlivable house. Another was found living with an uncle about to go to trial on child-rape charges. And one foster child was left for months in a home where everyone had a criminal record.
As the Orlando Sentinel revealed last week, those were among the potentially dangerous situations discovered when more than 70 caseworkers for Florida's foster care system were caught lying in the past two years — from faking descriptions of home conditions to even forging signatures. Luckily, no child was hurt as a result. But the state acknowledges the lies caused it to temporarily lose track of at least six children and leave 14 in unsafe homes. The Department of Children and Families cannot rely on luck to keep Florida's foster children safe. To deter lying, the state needs to fully enforce a law passed years ago that makes falsifying child welfare records a felony. DCF also needs to reconsider caseworkers' hiring and supervision and, perhaps most critically, consider limiting their caseloads.
DCF has a mechanism to catch caseworkers who lie, though only after they may have put children at risk. The department's inspector general had investigated all of the cases on which the Orlando newspaper based its report, and most of the workers were fired or resigned. Some also were prosecuted, though the punishment in most cases, probation, was too light for a crime that endangers a child.
Many of the caseworkers caught lying blamed heavy caseloads that made it impossible to monitor each child. It appears that the recommended national standard of 12 to 15 children per caseworker is regularly exceeded by both DCF and some of the community-based private agencies that DCF hires to manage the long-term care of most Florida foster children.
The Sentinel reported that at least two private contractor caseworkers said they had more than 40 children assigned to them. That may be an aberration, but it is unacceptable. Reasonable caseloads may be the best way to encourage honest reporting by caseworkers. The costs of monitoring foster children could rise a bit because of caseload caps, but the state is duty-bound to make sure children in its care are safe.
The need for better supervision of caseworkers may be addressed soon by technology. Last week, DCF Secretary George Sheldon announced that all 2,800 caseworkers employed by DCF's private contractors will receive global positioning system devices that will improve efficiency in filing reports and allow supervisors to better track caseworkers' efforts. Reports would be filed electronically from the field, complete with snapshots of the child at the visit. If the devices work as envisioned, they could be a boon to child safety, but the software is still under development and it could be many months before DCF's own 1,200 child protective investigators receive the devices.
Sadly, falsified reports and misplaced children are not a new problem at DCF. In 2002, the agency was forced to admit it had lost 5-year-old Rilya Wilson. The foster child never has been found. Since then, laws have been strengthened, DCF has been reorganized and DCF secretaries have come and gone, but the risk to children remains. Technology won't solve the problem of a caseworker with too little time for each child. That's a systemic problem only state leaders can address by limiting caseloads and then providing the money to enforce them.