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Foster children are left in limbo

Foster children aren't suppose to live in temporary placement more than a year and half. But more than two-thirds of them have, advocates said Monday.

"When you or I have something great or terrible happen to us, our first instinct is to call home," Miami attorney Karen Gievers said at a news conference. "These children have no one to call."

A recent survey by the state Department of Health and Rehabilitative Services (HRS) found that unless changes are made, 7,002 of the 10,412 children in foster care would exceed the state-recommended limit of 18 months by May 1.

Gievers last fall successfully challenged the right of Gov. Lawton Chiles and the Cabinet to make midyear cuts to a budget written by the Legislature. She also has a federal lawsuit pending in Miami on behalf of six brothers and sisters who have been in foster care for years, long past the state limit of 18 months.

She has worked out a settlement with Chiles that calls for an extra $44-million to be spent on improving the foster care system, but it depends on the Legislature finding the money _ something lawmakers have been unable to do _ and approval by a federal judge.

Two other federal lawsuits are pending. Settlement of one requires an additional $17-million to be spent on providing services to children in state custody. Another $29-million is required to settle the other case, filed on behalf of juvenile delinquents.

If the state fails to act and federal judges appoint monitors to run those programs, Florida probably will have to come up with $200-million this year, Gievers said.

The proposed settlements call for a three-year phase-in with an $82-million price tag this year.

Gievers was joined by other advocates and attorneys as well as Florida Supreme Court Justice Leander Shaw and Justices Rosemary Barkett and Major Best Harding to mark foster care week and try to generate support for providing adequate care to Florida's foster children.

"Foster care has to be a lot more than three hots and a cot," Jack Levine, executive director of the Florida Center for Youth and Children, said, using a phrase that has been used by homeless people to describe temporary shelters.

"Florida is not a poor state," Levine said. "We are just treating our children poorly."