TAMPA — Placing problem foster teens in a secure juvenile justice facility would be no different than arresting them, says Hillsborough County Sheriff Chad Chronister, the latest local leader to come out against a controversial plan to deal with foster children who refuse placements and therapy.
Chronister described the plan, which is backed by the Florida Department of Children and Families, as “ludicrous” and warned Wednesday it would further erode children’s confidence in the grownups entrusted to care for them. Many of the teens refusing placements have already been bounced between dozens of foster and group homes.
“The child welfare system has failed these children,” Chronister said. “I would never believe the fix would be to arrest these victims and send them to a secure detention facility.”
Hillsborough County Commission Chairman Les Miller proposed Wednesday that county staff investigate housing the teens — some of whom have histories of multiple arrests and school suspensions — at Lake Magdalene, a group home owned and run by the county. Some end up sleeping in offices because of the state’s failure to find them a long-term home.
“That raised a red flag with me,” Miller said of the proposal. “We’re putting more hardship on kids who had major hardship already?”
The recommendation to use a secure facility came from a Hillsborough Juvenile Justice Advisory Board committee. Its plan calls for a new state law allowing children to be forced into placements for up to 90 days through a court order.
Hillsborough children would be housed in an unused building at the Juvenile Justice campus on East Columbus Drive previously used as a “consequence unit” for children in custody. There, they would receive intensive therapy and other services to try and stabilize them until they can go to a regular foster home.
Use of a secure facility would be a last resort. There would also be a non-secure facility with up to 15 beds.
The recommendation is backed by DCF Secretary Chad Poppell and lead foster care agency Eckerd Connects. But it is facing growing opposition from non-profit groups Florida’s Children First and the Children’s Campaign, and also from the ACLU of Florida 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 a locked facility will cause them more emotional harm.
As many as four children refuse placements every night, said Chris Card, chief of community care for Eckerd Connects. The agency, which took over foster care in Hillsborough in 2012, has struggled in recent years to house a group of about 20 children who are classified as night-to-night placements.
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Card, who supports the advisory board plan, said he would be willing to work with the county to explore placing children at the 23-acre facility in Carrollwood.
“Lake Magdalene is a tremendous resource,” Card said. “I would hope that it will be the whole answer. I don’t know that it will be.”
Hillsborough County has another incentive to retool Lake Magdalene. The 2018 federal Family First Prevention Services Act puts a two-week limit on federal subsidies for stays in expensive group homes like Lake Magdalene’s. That provision has yet to take effect in Florida.
The county also is investing $3 million on a program to reduce the number of children removed from their families and help get children who are taken away out of foster care more quickly.
Options for Lake Magdalene could include re-configuring the campus into individual foster homes run by professional foster parents.
Miller’s proposal was backed by Commissioner Kimberley Overman, who served on the juvenile justice committee whose plan included the use of a secure facility. She recommended that county staff drawing up a new plan for Lake Magdalene make use of other recommendations in the report.
This won’t be the first time the county has stepped in to try and help with Hillsborough most difficult foster kids. In 2017, it leased two cottages at Lake Magdalene to Eckerd Connects, which hired Truecore Behavioral Solutions to care for difficult-to-place teens.
The initiative was quietly shelved after less than a month because the teens were blamed for a rash of break-ins in nearby homes.
Commissioner Sandy Murman said children who spend years in the foster system can be moved up to 80 times, a situation she described as “unconscionable.”
“What happened after the fifth placement? Why wasn’t it stopped?” she said. “To me, that is the fault of Eckerd Connects and DCF.”