1. Archive

"Kids are falling like flies'

Published Oct. 8, 2005

Nancy Parker's foster children have left their mark on her home.

In one corner sits a birthday card from a former charge, now 29. On a wall is the picture of another, now married with children.

Then there's the 16-year-old who put a screw in her car tire. He stole from the neighbors' mailboxes and thought once about putting her cat, Pooh, in the dryer.

The medium-sized boy with blond hair takes up a page or two in Parker's photo album. In one shot, he's wearing the $70 Orlando Magic jersey she bought him. In another, he's getting a buzz cut. In both, he's frowning.

He stayed with Parker about eight months. Then he left for another home. Parker lost track of him until he showed up in the newspapers last week.

"He was the most intelligent child, very likable and fun," said Parker, a foster parent for 22 years. "But he had big problems. He was destructive."

The boy is Stephen P. He was one of 12 children named in a lawsuit last week that charges the state Department of Health and Rehabilitative Services with failing a generation of foster children in Citrus, Hernando, Lake, Marion and Sumter counties.

The suit was filed by the 5th Judicial Circuit's guardian ad litem program. The folks in that program look out for the interests of foster children in court. And these days, they're not too happy with HRS.

Stephen, the suit says, wound up in the foster care system in 1992 when his mother refused to pick him up after his arrest on a shoplifting charge.

He has been in 10 foster homes since then, it says, and has yet to receive the services he needs to get his life on track.

"Kids are falling like flies," said Jolene Cazzola, director of the ad litem program. "We're losing a generation."

The suit, believed to be the first of its kind in Florida, has caused a stir in the tiny community of parents, guardians and social workers that make up the foster care world.

Parker says she feels free to speak up because her foster care license was revoked in April. One of her foster children had found a gun in her home and taken it to school.

It was a dumb mistake, she admits. But now, she is relieved not to have the responsibility of foster children.

"It's a complex problem," she said.

All told, there are about 530 foster kids and 270 foster homes in HRS District 13, whose five counties are the same as the 5th Judicial Circuit.

In Citrus County, 30 to 40 foster children live in 24 foster homes.

Foster care is supposed to be a sort of way station, a place where abused or neglected children can stay until they are reunited with parents or relatives.

After 18 months, according to Florida statutes, the children are supposed to be on their way to a permanent living situation _ a return to parents, adoption, group living or permanent foster care.

But too often, the suit says, HRS systematically fails to reach that goal.

Kids don't have access to counseling. They aren't taught the skills they need to live as adults. Most troubling, they bounce from home to home as HRS strives _ for too long, the suit says _ to return them to their biological parents.

Just about everyone agrees those things are problems. Nobody has easy answers.

"I don't think anybody knows what the solution is," said Ginger West, a foster parent for 18 years and the director of the Family Resource Center.

"The HRS is almost always the scapegoat for everything that goes wrong," she said. "But most of the people I know at HRS do this work because they love kids. If they knew the answer, they'd be doing it."

News of the suit blindsided administrators for District 13, which has existed only since July. But in a refreshing change from bureaucratic buck-passing, they acknowledge problems.

"I feel strongly we can do a better job," said Wayne Wilson, the children and families administrator for the district.

He has been in Florida only since April, when he left a similar job in Washington, D.C., to help set up the district and its new headquarters in Wildwood.

Already, he says, the district has made progress. He points to a big increase in adoption in the district's five counties during the first quarter this year _ 23 children as opposed to three last year _ as evidence that kids are being placed in more permanent situations.

He also says the district's new administrators are keen to make changes; just give them some time.

"The reform process is in place. It's going on," he said.

But Cazzola says the suit is only seeking to ensure that it happens. She wants the courts to look at some models of what she calls successful foster care systems.

Privatization of the system is one of those models.

She points to groups like the Lake County Boys Ranch as doing a good job of providing children with the counseling and stability they need.

HRS regulates the ranch as it does day-care centers. The ranch, in turn, has its own system of foster care and counseling programs.

"The HRS is real good at monitoring contracts. Let private industry have a chance. It can work," Cazzola said.

Other participants look at the lawsuit differently. Perhaps it is just the stick the system needs to get moving.

"If we get some sensible people working and talking, it could really help," said Harold P. Coates, president of the Citrus County Foster Parents Association.

"The system needs fixing. But it just won't change overnight."