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Foster care bill increases accountability but still leaves Tampa Bay area short

Child welfare systems in Hillsborough, Pinellas and Pasco would pilot a program designed to make agencies more accountable.
State Sen. Wilton Simpson, R-Trilby, is the sponsor of new legislation to hold foster care agencies more accountable.
State Sen. Wilton Simpson, R-Trilby, is the sponsor of new legislation to hold foster care agencies more accountable. [ SCOTT KEELER | Tampa Bay Times ]
Published Mar. 10, 2020

TAMPA — Foster care agencies could face financial penalties for performing badly and lose state contracts for repeated failures under a new law championed by Gov. Ron DeSantis and first lady Casey DeSantis.

The measure directs the Florida Department of Children and Families to develop benchmarks for foster care agencies while setting standards for child protective investigators and attorneys who work for the state.

But the bill is vague on what those targets are, and some provisions — like awarding agencies a letter grade — have been removed from the latest version.

That may signal that lawmakers are unwilling to tackle funding formulas that allocate less money to agencies serving more children, including those in the Tampa Bay area.

The agencies complain that the playing field should be level before they are measured against other regions.

“Oversight and accountability are welcome if you give us enough resources to do the job well,” said Chris Card, chief of community care for Eckerd Connects, which runs foster care in Hillsborough, Pinellas and Pasco counties. “You can’t compare us unless you fund us the same way.”

Related: Hillsborough loses big as state fails to divide child welfare money by need

The bill establishes an Office of Quality within the Florida Department of Children and Families to oversee the performance of agencies with which it contracts. The office would review random cases and would be required to report agencies that persistently fail.

State lawmakers are also hoping that financial incentives would help turn around struggling agencies. An incentive program will be piloted this year in two of Florida’s most troubled child welfare circuits — Hillsborough and the combined Pinellas-Pasco circuit.

Based on the current bill, about $2 million would be available in incentives if Eckerd Connects can exceed key child welfare measures that include getting most children in and out of foster care within a year. The nonprofit was warned in 2018 it could lose its Hillsborough contract because children ended up sleeping on air mattresses in offices and waiting around in gas stations because of a shortage of foster beds.

Eckerd Connects also received criticism after 2-year-old Jordan Belliveau was killed by his mother in Pinellas while under the supervision of a case manager from an agency subcontractor.

“We thought it would be much better if you go where the most challenges are,” said Sen. Wilton Simpson, R-Trilby, the bill’s sponsor. The bill passed a third reading in the senate on Monday. Simpson is in line to be the next senate president.

Related: Pinellas now ranks No. 2 in Florida for children in foster care

Card said foster agencies have not been told how they will be measured by the state. They already are required to report on a number of federal measures, such as how often foster children are moved to new homes, how many visits they get from case managers, and how often siblings are separated in foster care.

He expects new measures will focus on how agencies keep families intact with services like counseling, parenting classes and therapy, rather than removing children. A new federal law, the 2018 Family First Prevention Services Act, provides more funding for those services.

Foster care agencies will work with the Department of Children and Families department to set benchmarks, said Kurt Kelly, president of the Florida Coalition for Children. The group, which lobbies on behalf of foster care agencies, said all groups working in foster care and not just lead agencies such as Eckerd Connects should be graded.

That would include child protective investigators who are employed by the state in all but seven of Florida’s 67 counties. The local sheriff’s office is responsible in those seven counties.

Kelly said the legislation will have an impact.

“Any time it’s in statute, there is some level of teeth to this thing,” Kelly said. “It’s another bite at the apple to explain this is how we’re going to run our system of care."

Florida’s foster care system was privatized under former Gov. Jeb Bush, a process completed in 2006. The Bush administration put nonprofit groups in charge of foster care in each of the state’s 19 judicial circuits to increase local control. Those agencies report to the state and subcontract with other nonprofits to provide case managers and therapists.

The complex structure has led to criticism that it’s too easy for agencies to pass the blame.

“It’s a good thing for DCF to be looking at what are we getting for the dollars we spend ‚” said Christina Spudeas, executive director of Florida’s Children First, a statewide children’s rights advocacy group. “We’ve been advocating for DCF taking over the oversight.”

But Spudeas is concerned that the new bill may create different standards depending on where children live. The bill requires that child protective investigators follow the same standards as state-employed investigators but carves out exemptions for Pasco, Manatee, Broward and Pinellas — the first four counties that contracted the service out to their sheriff’s offices.

“Every family being investigated," she said, “should have the same standards applied in every part of the state.”


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