TAMPA — A federal agency has given the Florida Department of Children and Families 90 days to come up with a plan to improve its care of foster kids after a study found the state is underperforming in critical areas.
The "Children and Family Services Review" analyzed the DCF's handling of 80 foster care cases from April 1 to Sept. 30. In more than half of those cases, child welfare agencies removed children from homes without first providing appropriate services and were lax in following safety plans, the report states.
Florida also is struggling to provide counseling and therapy for every foster kid who needs them.
Overall, the DCF's performance was rated as needing improvement in 11 of 14 categories. The report was compiled by the Children's Bureau, part of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
It also found the DCF lacking in how well children are protected from abuse while under the state's watch and whether they have stable lives while in foster care. In some cases, the agency did not meet deadlines for initiating investigations of reported child abuse.
"This holds up a light to the people in the state and helps us see how our agency is doing," said Robin Rosenberg, deputy director of Florida's Children First, a statewide advocacy organization focused on children's rights. "For so many areas to be falling below standard is a wakeup call."
Child welfare in Florida was privatized by state lawmakers over a period of several years through 2005. The DCF contracts with 17 different "lead" agencies to manage and run foster placement and case management in 20 districts known as circuits across the state. Lead agencies subcontract with other local care providers.
As a result of the review, the DCF has scheduled a conference with agencies and other stakeholders from across the state on Tuesday to come up with ways to reform the child welfare system. The ideas generated will go into an improvement plan that will be submitted to the Children's Bureau before any federal decision on whether the DCF should face financial penalties.
"DCF takes these findings very seriously and we will work aggressively with the community-based care lead agencies to improve each item that was cited as not in substantial conformity," said DCF spokeswoman Jessica Sims. "Providing adequate services to families in times of need is an essential element to ensuring child safety and restoring families, and we are fully committed to that goal."
Among other concerns highlighted by the report are that some foster kids do not receive the physical therapy, counseling and other specialized services they need. That was true in one quarter of 67 applicable cases included in the review.
That was not a surprise to Rosemary Armstrong, executive director of Crossroads for Florida Kids, who said she sometimes has problems getting specialized therapy for children she represents who have behavioral issues or who need grief counseling. Crossroads provides pro bono legal representation for children in the foster care system.
Another concern is that children who have finished sentences in Department of Juvenile Justice commitment programs re-enter the foster care system with no clothes, she said.
"It takes so long to get clothing for the child," Armstrong said. "They need clothes for school and they need it right away."
Sims said that the DCF has provided more funding for lead agencies to hire additional case managers and provide better services and also to hire extra child protection investigators.
Still, the state has struggled to keep pace in recent years as the number of children being taken into care has risen, said Tabitha Lambert, circuit director for the guardian ad litem program in Hillsborough County.
"There's a high turnover in case management organizations and a lot of those needs may fall through the cracks," she said. "We have to take this information and see how we can improve the system."
Contact Christopher O'Donnell at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 226-3446. Follow @codonnell_Times.