TAMPA — The head of Florida’s child welfare system is backing a controversial proposal that would allow foster agencies to place children in secure facilities when they refuse placements and therapy.
The plan from the Hillsborough Juvenile Justice Advisory Board calls for a new state law allowing children to be forced into placements for up to 90 days through a court order. It is targeted at older foster children in Hillsborough who have been in both juvenile detention and the foster care system and who frequently refuse placements and end up sleeping in offices.
Florida Department of Children and Families Secretary Chad Poppell said he plans to talk to state lawmakers about introducing legislation based on the recommendation. It’s unclear if the policy would be introduced statewide or piloted in Hillsborough County, where more children have refused placements than anywhere else in the state.
“We have to come up with a better way to support these children,” Poppell said. “It’s unacceptable to have kids in the office building sleeping every night.”
His support comes despite growing opposition from groups including the ACLU of Florida, The Children’s Campaign and leaders of local Guardian ad Litem groups, which are appointed by the courts to represent the best interests of foster children.
They say forcing children into facilities where they would be locked up would cause them more emotional harm. There is also concern that the state is pushing a juvenile justice type solution for a foster care problem.
Foster placement records show that many of the children refusing placements were bounced between dozens of foster families and group homes before they refused their first placement or ended up in juvenile detention.
“Kids have rights and we don’t take away people’s freedoms if there’s not a really good reason to do so,” said Michelle Morton, juvenile justice policy coordinator for the ACLU of Florida. “This is very troubling.”
Mariela Ollen, circuit director for the Guardian ad Litem program in Pinellas and Pasco counties, said the community needs to provide more suitable foster homes so that children don’t end up feeling worthless and rejected, often a precursor to them acting out.
“I am concerned about the additional trauma that something like this will cause our kids,” she said. “I’m hoping the community all of a sudden comes together and sees the need for placements.”
Tabitha Lambert, her counterpart in Hillsborough, has similar concerns and also questioned why certain stakeholders were omitted from the committee that drew up the plan.
It included representatives from the juvenile justice system and Eckerd Connects, which runs foster care across Tampa Bay. But it did not include Guardian ad Litem groups, foster parents or dependency attorneys.
“It’s preached that we need to work together to benefit our kids yet you leave key players out of the equation,” Lambert said. “I don’t think that bodes well.”
The plan was hammered out during meetings dating back to March that were open to the public, said Elvin Martinez, the committee chair. Among those taking part were Hillsborough County Commissioner Kimberly Overman and representatives from the Sheriff’s Office and the county’s Children’s Services Department.
“I didn’t go out and recruit anyone to participate. That’s fair criticism,” Martinez said. “I didn’t intend it to be any kind of secret or to intentionally exclude their viewpoint.”
Hillsborough’s juvenile justice advisory board was asked to work on the foster care issue by Simone Marstiller, secretary of the Florida Department of Juvenile Justice.
Her involvement reflects the overlap between the two systems. More than 70 percent of children in one Hillsborough juvenile justice residential program had experienced contact with the foster care system, according to the committee’s report.
Some of those who refuse placements are categorized as “night-to-night” placements, children with no permanent foster home. Their lack of stability results in poor diets and inadequate sleep, the committee’s report states. Then they start failing at school, beginning a downward spiral that produces resentment, distrust and anger at being let down repeatedly.
The use of secure facilities would be a last resort for those children, Martinez said. The plan also calls for intensive therapy and other services to try and stabilize children so they can go to a regular foster home.
An independent evaluation of the child would be conducted before a court hearing, at which the child would have representation. The placement would be reviewed by a court every 45 days.
In Hillsborough, the secure unit would be an unused building at the Juvenile Justice campus on East Columbus Drive that was previously used as a “consequence unit” for children in custody. There would also be a non-secure facility with up to 15 beds.
“We’re not suggesting we take foster children and put them in handcuffs and lock them up,” Martinez said. “I would argue a night to night placement is just as bad.”
Currently, child welfare agencies have no legal remedy when foster children refuse to go to group homes or foster families. Children under the care of the state are exempt from a law that allows parents to petition for court-ordered placements for children they can no longer control.
Roy Miller, president of the Tallahassee non-profit The Children’s Campaign, said children coming out of juvenile detention need support to deal with issues like substance abuse and mental health, services that lawmakers have cut from juvenile justice budgets over the past decade.
“It’s a rather ineffective response to a chronic population of children we’ve known about for several years whose behavior is the result of a failed system,” he said.
It’s not just Hillsborough that is struggling with children refusing placements, Poppell said. But other communities have fewer such children, allowing them to spend more time and resources providing therapy.
Hillsborough, has a “critical mass of 20 to 40 children” who are starting to teach other foster children how to refuse placements," Poppell said.
The secretary, who was appointed by Gov. Ron DeSantis in 2018, acknowledged that the behavior of some children was the result of failings in the foster care system, such as children being moved from home to home and the high turnover of case managers.
“The issue today is we have children in deep need of services,” he said. “Looking at criminal behavior and number of placements, these kids need help and so we’re trying to find a way we can get them to stop and let us help them.”