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  1. Opinion

Slow the rush to lock up problem kids

A proposal in Hillsborough County to put some hard-to-place foster children in secure facilities needs a closer look, this child welfare advocate says
Roy Miller [File photo]

It’s long past time to change the way we refer to children in foster care.

Whether it’s called foster care or the child welfare system, those archaic terms diminish what is really going on. These children are victims of the worst abuse, neglect, sex trafficking and other traumas. If it was called the “child victim and well-being system,” maybe the egregiousness of children sleeping in offices or gas station parking lots, and spending significant years of their childhood in antiseptic rooms and scary facilities, would be better understood. And perhaps concerned Floridians and their legislators would hit the reset button on locking up child victims of trauma “for their own good” instead of rushing to change Florida’s child welfare policies, as the 13th Judicial Circuit’s Ad Hoc Committee on Dually-Involved Youth is proposing in Hillsborough County.

Although the committee’s recommendations are well-intended, they are a rush to a solution that addresses the wrong problem. The instability for approximately 20 dually-involved Hillsborough children is a symptom of an underlying ailment caused by failing to meet their needs for more than two decades.

Recently released research on the status of Florida girls by the Delores Barr Weaver Policy Center presents eye-opening facts about current levels of child trauma that have been overlooked and underrepresented in the existing narrative of Hillsborough’s placement instabilities, which is heavy on blaming child victims for system failures and inefficiencies.

According to the latest research, one in 10 Florida girls report having been raped. One in three feel unsafe at school, and 13 percent feel unsafe in their neighborhoods. More than one in three experience depression, and one in five have seriously contemplated suicide.

What makes this research relevant to the present Hillsborough County child welfare crisis is it recognizes that service and care models based on controlling children’s behaviors, rather than meeting trauma-based needs, will and do fail. The same thing can be said about the boys.

Traumatized victims cannot — and should not — be coerced into therapy. Citizens need to red flag comments like these when they appear. Florida’s Baker Act offers protections to those who are not an immediate threat to themselves or others. It’s time for Florida to quit trying to drag dependent child victims of abuse and trauma into lock-up facilities when they don’t meet the Baker Act guidelines.

Although the ad hoc committee’s 40-page report references trauma, it appears to be a sideways gesture to prevent push back. In fact, the report lacks specificity on the exact traumas these children have suffered. What are their ages, genders, ethnicity and other demographic factor,s and what are their individual stories bundled together? There is also no specific mention about service gaps or in-depth analysis of unmet needs in Hillsborough County surrounding the problem.

Just as troubling is the insulated process the ad hoc committee took at vetting its unsound proposals. To our knowledge, the findings weren’t presented to the 13th Judicial Circuit’s Juvenile Justice Advisory Board for public discussion, testimony and a formal vote. Nor were committee meetings publicized widely outside of Hillsborough County so groups with similar missions and innovative solutions working in other regions could weigh in.

Since the stakes are high with proposed child welfare and juvenile justice policy changes impacting child victims statewide, Department of Children and Families Secretary Chad Poppell should convene a statewide work group composed of diverse organizations from throughout Florida, including non-state-funded advocates. Those outside the local system can often help insiders see the system in ways that they cannot currently see.

When dealing with our most vulnerable children, urgency is important. But it’s also just as important to get it right.

Roy Miller is president of the Children’s Campaign in Tallahassee, a nonprofit that advocates for the health, safety, education and well-being of Florida’s children.

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