TAMPA — Child advocacy groups across Florida are warning that a bill to keep secret the names of foster parents will make it tougher to expose abuse and neglect within the foster care system.
The bill, sponsored by state Sen. Bill Montford, D-Tallahassee, would add foster parents' names to a list of information that is exempt from Florida's public records laws. The addresses of foster parents are already confidential under state law.
Montford said the Florida Department of Children and Families asked him to introduce the bill after hearing from foster parents concerned about their privacy. The concerns arose from a Sarasota Herald-Tribune public records request for the names of all foster parents in Florida.
State officials fear that families would stop fostering children if biological parents seek them out, Montford said.
"I understand the need for transparency and so on," he said. "In my mind, the safety of these foster parents and foster children themselves carried a heavier weight."
Child advocacy groups see the proposal as unnecessary and say it would make the foster care system less accountable .
Often, foster parents already know identities of biological parents through court hearings or visitations, and older foster children usually talk with their biological parents about their foster parents and where they're living.
The bill, according to critics, also creates the perception that parents whose children have been taken from them are bad players. That's a departure from an approach adopted by Florida to have foster parents interact and serve as role models for biological parents.
In the rare cases where foster parents might be at risk, restraining orders and other law enforcement measures make more sense than changing the public records law, said Robin Rosenberg, deputy director of Florida's Children First, a statewide advocacy organization focused on children's rights.
"This is a solution in search of a problem," said Robin Rosenberg. "You want children to stay connected to their whole family."
Supporters of the bill say foster parents are at risk, and cite the 2018 case of a 77-year-old foster mother who was shot in the leg after a couple that included the mother of the two children she was caring for turned up at her Miami home.
But there is no evidence that public records have ever been used by biological parents to find and harm foster parents, said Roy Miller, president of the Children's Campaign, a Tallahassee based non-profit group.
The Children's Campaign has urged supporters to lobby Montford; Rep. Spencer Roach, R-North Fort Myers; and Rep. Toby Overdorf, R-Palm City, who co-sponsored the matching state House bill. The state pays foster parents between $450 and $549 per month for each child based on the child's age.
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"Caring for abused and neglected children is a significant responsibility and, ultimately, a matter of public trust," said Miller. "Public accountability and scrutiny is part of that responsibility."
But the bill has the support of some foster parents.
Hillsborough County residents Elizabeth Ward, who has fostered about eight kids during her three years as a foster mom, helps run a Facebook group for foster parents to share problems and successes. A post about the bill drew strong support she said. Some of the group's members have been forced to change phone numbers and email addresses because they were inundated by biological parents, she said.
"We've had instances where foster parents were followed home from court hearings," she said. "If you're not protecting foster parents, you're giving people a reason to leave a system in which they don't feel protected already."
Ward said she does interact with the parents of the children she looks after. She's invited biological parents into her home and gone to the movies and the beach with them. But it should be up to the foster parent to decide what contact to have, she said.
As associate director of the Children & Youth Law Clinic at the University of Miami, Robert Latham uses public records to study how well Florida's foster care system is performing. One recent study was on foster care providers.
The data helped identify foster homes where a high number of children ran away or were Baker Acted. It shows homes that have a high turnover of children who stay for one or two days. It also shows how much group homes and foster parents are paid. Without the names of foster parents, he would not be able to compile the data.
He is also worried that abuses by foster parents, like the recent arrest of a Fort Walton Beach foster dad on child pornography charges, may not come to light. Instances of child abuse or neglect that might block an individual from fostering do not always result in an arrest and the public information it produces.
"The potential for misconduct with our most vulnerable children warrants constant vigilance regardless of who the caregiver is," he said. "Trust should not be blind."
Contact Christopher O'Donnell at email@example.com. Follow @codonnell_Times