TAMPA — The agency that runs foster care in Florida has agreed to no longer place children overnight in hotels or unlicensed offices, to stop squeezing more children into foster homes than they are licensed for and to keep children aged 6 and younger out of group foster homes staffed by shift workers.
But that commitment only applies in Miami-Dade and Monroe counties, where the Florida Department of Children and Families was sued by Children's Rights, a child advocacy group. The department agreed to the conditions as part of a settlement to a federal class action lawsuit that alleged the state was failing to provide adequate accommodation and care for foster children in the two counties, which are classified as DCF's Southern Region.
So what about the rest of Florida?
State officials said the agreement doesn't mean different levels of care across the state. The standards in the agreement line up with federal and state targets that apply across Florida, they said. And children are only placed in offices in exceptional circumstances.
"The settlement agreement is specific to the Southern Region. However, DCF's work in meeting state and federal standards, and improving the system of care, is statewide," said spokeswoman DaMonica Smith.
But the agreement will mean a difference in how foster care is monitored and the potential penalties DCF could face, at least in South Florida.
The settlement designates national child welfare expert Kevin Ryan as an independent auditor to oversee how well DCF is performing. If the department under-performs, advocates can now call on a federal judge to demand corrective action.
"The agreement is enforceable by the federal court," said Ira Lustbader, litigation director at Children's Rights. "It would be up to the court to determine any remedies."
Other child welfare groups across Florida are taking note.
"This is a significant step in the right direction because officially the state of Florida and DCF have agreed there are longstanding problems in the child welfare system and they've agreed on a mandate to fix those problems," said Roy Miller, president of the Tallahassee non-profit The Children's Campaign.
But Miller said DCF must come up with a statewide fix for problems that include a shortage of foster beds and children being bounced from home to home.
His comments were echoed by Robin Rosenberg, deputy director of Florida's Children First, a group that advocates for children's rights across Florida.
"No one should have to sue DCF to get them to do their job," she said. "The problems with inadequate placement are pervasive across the state of Florida."
A Tampa Bay Times analysis of foster placement records between 2000 and 2017 revealed that about 1,500 children stayed in 12 different homes over a single year. More than 7,500 children were moved an average of once a month over a six-month period and almost 2,000 children had six placements in just one month.
Psychologists warn that frequent moves can result in children developing trust issues and becoming unable to form healthy relationships.
DCF's commitment on not placing children in offices or hotels will be of particular interest in Hillsborough County, which has used offices and other unlicensed accommodations as it has struggled to find room for foster children. The county leads the state in the number of children in care, despite its No. 4 ranking in population.
Eckerd Connects, the agency that runs foster care across Tampa Bay, was warned last year it could lose its contract for Hillsborough after a state-mandated review expressed special concern for children who have been moved from home to home and who often lack access to laundry, hygiene products and nutritious or home-cooked food. There were 35 of these children at the time of the evaluation.
The Southern Region federal lawsuit was filed in early 2018 after advocates learned that children under the age of 6 had been housed in emergency shelters and group homes and received care from shift workers. Studies suggest that children fare better in home settings.
In addition to more stable placements, the settlement requires that DCF ensure that at least 90 percent of children receive needed mental and behavioral counseling. It is required to meet all of the standards by 2021.
Florida is already working through statewide improvements in foster care that were mandated in 2017 by the Children's Bureau, part of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
Its review of 80 foster care cases that year found that more than half the time child welfare agencies removed children from homes without first providing appropriate services such as parenting classes.
The bureau approved a corrective plan and DCF has completed all but two points identified on it, said spokeswoman Jessica Sims.
Contact Christopher O'Donnell at email@example.com or (813) 226-3446. Follow @codonnell_times.