Justice McGuill was barely 12 when she walked into the house in Hudson, her little hands gripping tightly to a duffel bag containing her only possessions.
It was her fifth foster home in a year.
This one felt like a real home. Even better, it was her first chance to live with her three younger brothers since they were all claimed by the foster care system.
But her foster dad started molesting her when she hit puberty, she said. She kept it secret so she could stay with her brothers until she was moved again.
In all, Justice lived in 10 different homes in just four years before she and her brothers were adopted.
“I felt like I had nowhere to call home,” she said. “Sometimes you don’t even want to unpack.”
Foster care is intended to be a temporary safety net for children at risk of neglect and abuse at home. Those children, many already traumatized, need love and stability to recover and thrive, child psychologists say.
But thousands of Florida's foster children were put at risk of further psychological damage by an overburdened system that repeatedly bounced them from home to home and family to family, a Tampa Bay Times investigation found.
Times reporters analyzed more than one million child welfare records recording the movements or placements of about 280,000 foster children under Florida's care between 2000 and 2017. They show that thousands of foster children led transient lives, many staying only a few nights in one place before being moved on to the next foster family or group home.
About 1,500 children stayed in 12 different homes in a single year, the records show. More than 7,500 children moved an average of once a month over a six-month period. Almost 2,000 children had six placements in just one month.
The majority of children found long-term foster placements. But that was not the case for many, records show, most of them older teens, some with severe behavioral problems, issues like substance abuse or brushes with the Florida juvenile detention system.
In the worst cases, some children were moved so often it would be impossible for them to form any meaningful relationship with foster parents.
One Hillsborough County child taken into foster care in 2015 bounced between foster families and group homes after a stay with the Salvation Army. The child would be moved more than 50 times over the next year.
Another Hillsborough child stayed in 43 different places over the course of 2016. Over half of those placements lasted only two days or less.
The lack of permanency means more than just new caregivers and new house rules. With each move, children may lose touch with friends or be forced to change schools, which can drag down their grades. There is a strong risk of emotional damage, too, with children developing trust issues and becoming unable to form healthy relationships, said Marlene Bloom, a Hillsborough County psychologist who has worked with foster children for 20 years.
"That instability just damages your mental health so severely," Bloom said. "There are children who would be better off staying in an abusive family than in foster care. That’s horrible to say, but if you can’t offer them something better, why are we removing them?"
• • •
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services sets a national standard of 4.12 placements per 1,000 days in foster care to measure whether a state or local child welfare system is providing stable foster home placements.
Florida, with a current placement rate of 4.48, falls short of that target.
Florida Department of Children and Families officials said that many of the children in the state's care have experienced incredible trauma in the form of abuse, abandonment and domestic violence. That often manifests itself as self-harm or destructive behavior and makes it difficult for these children to ever trust an adult.
They also pointed out that the Times' analysis includes placements before foster care was privatized under former Gov. Jeb Bush, a process that was completed in 2006. His administration put nonprofit groups in charge of foster care in each of the state's 19 judicial circuits to increase local control.
"A vast majority, 14 of Florida’s 19 community-based care lead agencies, are surpassing federal performance standards for placement stability and DCF is working closely with the remaining lead agencies to recruit more foster homes and better support foster families in the communities they serve,” Rebecca Kapusta, interim department secretary, said in an email. "If we find that foster children aren’t being cared for properly, we hold the organizations responsible for their care accountable."
But the department's data shows that the five agencies falling well short of the federal standard are responsible for about 60 percent of the state's foster children. That includes Eckerd Connects, the agency that runs foster care in Hillsborough County. In Pinellas and Pasco counties — also run by Eckerd Connects — the placement rate meets federal standards.
In most cases, it is older children who bear the brunt of the problem. Over the past five years, almost 20 percent of Florida children aged 13 and older had more than five placements.
Robin Rosenberg, deputy director of Florida’s Children First, a statewide advocacy organization focused on children’s rights, said the state is struggling because too many children are unnecessarily removed from their homes.
Since 2013, the number of children in either foster homes or housed with relatives has risen by 40 percent, to more than 24,000.
Without enough foster beds, placement becomes a scramble to find any home willing to take a child instead of matching a child with a foster parent trained to deal with children with severe behavioral issues. That can start a cycle where children who act out are repeatedly moved because foster parents are unable to cope, Rosenberg said.
"People perceive them as having bad behavior and being bad kids when those are pretty normal coping mechanisms for terrible situations," Rosenberg said.
Not enough foster beds also means many children spend long periods in group homes, often regarded as the placement of last resort. Studies have shown that children in group homes typically do worse in school, are more likely to end up entering the juvenile justice system and spend longer in foster care.
Yet states including Florida routinely place children in group homes because they have no other beds, according to the Annie E. Casey Foundation. More than 2,000 Florida children are currently in group homes, according to state data.
"Children need families. We’re not giving them something better when we take them from a family and put them in an institution," Rosenberg said. "The bottom line is that kids come into care because they’re traumatized and the system further traumatizes them."
• • •
About two children per week arrive at the Hyde Park office where Marlene Bloom conducts psychological assessments.
The visits are most often the result of a court order made by a judge concerned about the child's behavior or mental well-being. Recent evaluations included children with severe behavioral problems like trying to set a family home on fire or making sexual threats against younger children.
In the 90-minute sessions, she chats with the children and tests their IQ and cognitive skills and looks for mental health issues. Typically, the children with the most problems are the ones who have been moved the most, she said.
A critical part of a child's development is the attachment they develop with their parents or caregivers. Much good behavior comes from a desire to please the grownups in their lives.
Children moved frequently may lack that motivation so their behavior becomes erratic. Their acting out may be a way to see if a foster parent is going to stick around but often puts their placement at risk, Bloom said.
"They'll hit people; curse people out," Bloom said. "They can't trust those people will stick with them unless they test it out."
Bloom's job is to identify what treatment the children need. Post Traumatic Stress Disorder is common in foster children. There may be abandonment issues, emotional damage from abuse, depression and anxiety.
"We just don’t have labels that can capture the complexity of family rejection, sexual abuse, poverty and 14 different foster homes," Bloom said.
Aytia Tarpley aged out of foster care about three years ago after living in about 30 different homes.
Now a criminal justice technology student at Broward College, she still struggles to trust people who enter her life, constantly questioning their motives.
"It causes me to think that everyone is out to oppress me," she said. "I'm very sensitive now, very emotional. I take everything to heart."
She was just 2 when she was removed from her mother, who was using drugs. Her 16-year slog through the child welfare systems shows many of the pitfalls that befall children.
She was adopted after a number of placements and spent seven years with one family. But she ended up back in foster care because of fears that her adoptive mother was abusing children.
That was the start of a five-year spell where she moved from home to home, including stays at group homes as far away as Okeechobee County and Jacksonville.
In those homes there were often fights with other girls, she said. One roommate also showed her a dating site and told her she could meet men who would treat her like a princess.
She went on a date with a man who was in his 30s, she said. Aytia was just 14.
"I just wanted that feeling of wanting to be wanted," she said.
The constant moves meant she attended four high schools. Her grades suffered. At her lowest point, she threatened to take a drug overdose and asked to be involuntarily committed, she said.
"I was a child screaming out for help and everyone was walking past me," Tarpley said. "I had no one I loved or cared about around me."
By the time she was 16, she wasn't afraid to act out if she felt she was being ignored. She said she didn't begin to get her life together until she was 20 and became involved with Florida Youth Shine, a nonprofit that helps current and former foster children.
Now she has a high school diploma and is studying for an AA degree. When she looks back, she wonders why there weren't more adults who understood what she was going through.
"The lack of civility made me feel like I was an item, like something you pick up from a store and take to a house, not a human being," she said.
• • •
No county in Florida has struggled more with placements in recent years than Hillsborough.
The state in February ordered a review of the county's foster care system by a panel of experts after reports that children were sleeping in offices and that some were forced to wait at gas stations to find out where they would be sleeping.
The review uncovered that dozens of older teens were living a "chaotic and transient lifestyle.’’ Some refused to go to school because their clothes were dirty and some didn't have access to laundry and hygiene products. They often went without nutritious or home-cooked food. Shuffling children from one foster home to another had become an acceptable alternative even for young children and infants.
The state responded by warning Eckerd Connects it must fix those problems or risk losing its $77 million annual contract. Five months later, finding long-term homes for older teens remains a problem for the agency.
Hillsborough’s placement rate of 5.52 falls well short of the federal standard. An average of between 15 and 25 children are still listed as either interim — meaning they are at a home that will not give them a long-term placement — or as "night-to-night placements," meaning they may sleep in a different home every night. Children spend an average of nine days on the list.
Chis Card, who was hired in May as chief of community-based care for Hillsborough, Pinellas and Pasco counties by Eckerd Connects, said progress is being made.
Of the 425 children categorized as interim or night-to-night between January and October, permanent placements have been found for 382. The remaining 43 children have had permanent placements but either disrupted again, ran away, or are in juvenile detention or in a medical facility, Card said.
Card, who recently interviewed for the position of secretary of the Department of Children and Families, said Hillsborough does not get the funding it needs.
"Every child welfare system struggles with this issue; every community has similar situations," he said in an email. "Hillsborough is struggling slightly more than other areas due to the lack of adequate funding and resources."
Anna Zhang went through the Hillsborough foster care system after her dad was incarcerated. She was separated from her younger sister and stayed in five different homes until she was adopted when she was 17.
When it was time to move on, sometimes she would only have five minutes to pack her belongings and say her goodbyes. The loss of her sister and the feeling of not being wanted made her more and more introverted, she said.
"I felt like I had lost myself," she said. "People think it’s joke when you literally have to put your things in a trash bag and move, but it's true."
Zhang, 22, eventually found a long-term foster parent, the only woman she has ever called mom. She earned a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice with a minor in pre-law at Florida A&M University. She is now studying for a master's degree and volunteers at the Big Bend Homeless Coalition serving meals to needy people.
But her past is always there, especially when she meets new people.
"I’m very hesitant; my trust is hard to gain," she said. "It will always be very emotional when I talk about it."
Contact Christopher O'Donnell at [email protected] or (813) 226-3446. Follow @codonnell_times.
This story was written as part of the “Reporting Vulnerable Children in Care" program, a journalism skills development program run by the Thomson Reuters Foundation, in partnership with UBS’s Optimus Foundation. Content is the sole responsibility of author and publisher.