TAMPA — Parents are often at their lowest ebb when they turn to Norman Palumbo.
A Tampa family law attorney, Palumbo has clients whose children were taken away because of neglect, domestic violence or substance abuse. He has seen first-hand their struggle to get children back, to follow case plans that include parenting classes, counseling and, for some, treatment to end drug addiction.
In almost every case, parents needed more time than they were originally given, he said.
That’s why Palumbo and others in the foster care system are raising an alarm about an aggressive push by the Florida Department of Children and Families to get children out of the foster care system within one year.
A new directive sent by General Counsel Javier Enriquez orders department attorneys to follow strict deadlines on when to ask courts to terminate parental rights, considered the “death penalty” in child dependency law. If termination is approved by a judge, parents lose their rights permanently and their children typically stay in foster care until they are adopted, placed with a guardian, or age out of the system.
A letter sent in October to lead foster agencies also warns that Department of Children and Families attorneys will be more aggressive in pushing cases through the system to meet an ambitious goal set by Secretary Chad Poppell: Reduce the number of families “in crisis” 20 percent by summer 2021.
But parents battling problems like substance addiction frequently relapse and need more than one chance before they can be rehabilitated. The result will be more children permanently separated from their parents and more stress on an already clogged dependency-court system, Palumbo said.
“Had this been in place throughout my legal career, the results would have been devastating, and the overburdened courts and foster care systems would have reached unmanageable proportions,” Palumbo said. “I can think of many of my client families who would not be together today if the time frames had been rigidly enforced.”
Department attorneys work for the Children’s Legal Services office. They represent the state in dependency court on matters such as shelter hearings, motions to terminate parental rights and contested adoptions.
In a move that seems intended to bring office leadership in line with his approach, Poppell has ordered all six regional directors of Children’s Legal Services to resign. They are eligible to reapply for their position or to be retained, said department spokeswoman Aly Coleman.
“Helping children achieve permanency in a timely matter is necessary to reduce the number of families in crisis,” Coleman said in an email to the Tampa Bay Times. "DCF has identified a set of clear priorities and it is imperative that we build a team to help us meet our goals through 2021 and beyond”
Poppell, a former secretary of the state Department of Management Services and lobbyist for IBM, was appointed in January by Gov. Ron DeSantis.
His aggressive new turnaround goal will ensure that children do not languish for years in the foster care system, Coleman said. The one-year goal for permanency — either reunification, guardianship or adoption — is supported by state law.
State records show that children spend an average of almost 18 months in Florida’s foster care system, well above the federal goal of 12 months. Only 38 percent of children leave the system within a year of being removed from a home.
But kids who end up adopted — roughly 27 percent of those removed — have spent an average of 2½ years in foster care.
Almost half of children who are removed end up back with their parents.
Under the new directive, attorneys are supposed to file for termination of parental rights within 60 days of a child’s one year anniversary in foster care. In cases where the parents have a criminal history or have been previously investigated for abuse or neglect, attorneys are ordered to ensure that case plans are drawn up with a goal of adoption, if necessary, as well as reunification.
Previously, attorneys had more latitude about when to give up on struggling parents, said Robin Rosenberg, deputy director of Florida’s Children First, a statewide advocacy organization focused on children’s rights.
Getting children out of foster care more quickly is obviously beneficial but the state’s focus should be providing help to families so they can be reunified, Rosenberg said.
“It seems to take away the discretion and judgment of what is in the best interest of that child and family.” Rosenberg said. “My fear is children will be unnecessarily deprived of their parents.”
The majority of children removed by the state come from low-income families. It can be overwhelming for them to maintain homes and jobs while also following case plans set out for them, said Miami family law attorney Richard Joyce.
Typical case plans included substance abuse treatment and classes like parenting or anger management. Parents must also maintain contact with a case manager and visit with their child. Often those obligations clash with their jobs. Some parents can’t afford cars and rely on public transport to attend classes and visit treatment centers.
The Department of Children and Families directive amounts to a one-size fits all approach, Joyce said.
“Sadly, the directive fills the typical stereotype of a cold, behemoth type of governmental bureaucracy in child welfare in Florida,” he said.
The tougher approach does have its supporters.
Chris Card, chief of community-based care for Eckerd Connects, said the decision to terminate a parent’s rights to custody of a child must be approved in court. Parents have representation during the hearing.
“The department is making significant efforts to keep children with their families and avoid removal through diversion and in-home services,” Card said in an email to the Times. “So the overall effort by DCF to reduce children in crisis is multifaceted.”
State law permits extensions of case plans if there are compelling reasons, said Mariela Ollsen, the circuit director for the Guardian ad Litem Program in Pinellas and Pasco counties. The directive requires that parents are given the services they need within seven days of a child being removed so they have time to work through their issues.
“I think it’s good to have something that lays out directions and expectations,” Ollsen said. “Kids are languishing too long in care. I think everyone agrees on that.”