Child protection services are challenging. Traumatized children and families need support and services and hundreds of regulations must be followed and completed for all. Though most children in foster care are successfully reunited with their families, headlines scream the need to address issues from child deaths to children left at malls or convenience stores. Some children enter the child welfare system because their families refuse to care for them due to their behaviors and delinquent activities. Hillsborough, Pinellas and Pasco Counties have struggled with this handful of youth (less than 20 of 3,000 active) for several years. The community has been engaged to bring ideas and resources to address their needs. Unfortunately, these youth gain an understanding that they can refuse services, school and placement and they can run the streets with no consequence.
In 90 days there have been more than 550 police calls for vandalism, narcotics use, runaways, battery, grand theft, a death threat, Baker/Marchman Acts, etc. Most nights, officers can do nothing as the behaviors were not directly witnessed. Most calls were attributed to less than 10 youths. They wreak havoc on child welfare case managers who are trying to help them -- who leave their own children to sit overnight in an office with teens who refuse placement. Prior to reaching this point, case managers, supervisors to the highest level and partner agencies have collectively worked to identify a family, a child residential facility, or other licensed home anywhere in the state, to receive the teen. Sometimes the case manager drives hours only to have a youth refuse to go inside. Case managers find themselves alone with an unruly, angry teen, back in the office.
Offices are not meant to house children overnight. Often these teens have had countless run-ins with the law and they threaten physical assault against the case managers who have been charged to put the child’s interest above everything else. This routine (24-7 schedules and threats) leads to endless turnover. If a case manager walks (or runs) away they are charged with child neglect and will be fired. Our maintenance team weekly cleans up the broken glass, puts office doors back on hinges and repairs holes in the walls. Other clients are afraid to enter. The landlord has had enough.
Agency leaders, like us, overspend an already deficit budget to employ off-duty police officers to give case managers a sense of protection. Recently, an officer expressed concern of not feeling safe with these youth and others stopped signing up for overnight shifts, forcing the hiring a private security firm at more than twice the cost. If some police officers don’t feel safe around these teens, how can state officials expect others to do this work? Child welfare partner agencies cannot bear the increasing costs of 24-7 security, and the continuum of care cannot continue to churn out and burn out case managers.
There are many critics of secured youth facilities and few options for youth who are treading a dangerous path to prison or worse. We must do something different, and do it now to assure needed services are delivered in an attempt to change youths’ trajectory, and help them heal in a secure treatment environment.
Our elected officials must pass laws to protect workers who are holding it together by a thread and to protect teens from themselves.
Sandra E. Braham is president and CEO of Gulf Coast Jewish Family and Community Services. Mark Wickham is president and CEO of Youth and Family Alternatives.