The state of Florida has diagnosed a problem correctly but proposes a backward solution. With too many children in Tampa Bay needing social services and not enough money, the state is considering moving some of these children to resource-rich South Florida. Why send children across the state when sending money where it’s needed makes more sense?
The Department of Children and Families is weighing a plan that would confront inequities in the child welfare system in part by moving children to available resources - instead of the other way around. For years, Hillsborough - which removes more children from their parents than any county - has struggled to place teenagers who resist placements into foster homes. The lack of available housing has become so acute and dangerous for the teenagers involved that officials are considering whether to hold some foster children temporarily in a secure facility.
The plan under consideration by DCF seeks to maximize existing services and address inequities statewide in spending on child welfare. State spending on child services in South Florida now far outstrips other areas, including the Tampa Bay region. Last fiscal year, for example, the state spent $17,418 per child served in South Florida, records show, yet only $8,193 per child in Pinellas and Pasco counties and $8,924 in Hillsborough. That is fundamentally unfair.
Under one scenario, the region serving Miami-Dade and Monroe counties would lose $11.5 million over several years. But DCF Secretary Chad Poppell doesn’t want wholesale cuts immediately. As a compromise, the state might ask the South Florida region to provide more behavioral health services or consulting statewide in exchange for keeping the money in its contract. Those services could include new behavioral care and facilities that would be open to counties with large case loads, such as Hillsborough.
It’s one thing to send children away from their local communities for the purpose of uniting with a family member. It’s another thing altogether to move them around like game pieces because money is only available hundreds of miles from home. Uprooting a child already traumatized by being taken from their home and plunking them into a foreign environment is hardly a stabilizing step.
The state is trying to address two problems here - an unequal payment system, and skewed service capacity - with a single fix. The South Florida region collects tens of millions of dollars more than providers in the Tampa Bay area, even though the Hillsborough (2,534) and Pinellas-Pasco (2,505) regions serve far more children in out-of-home care than South Florida (1,386). Yet the answer isn’t to rob Peter to pay Paul. It’s to provide individual regions the money they need to serve their unique populations in community settings.
Tampa Bay’s needs have nothing to do with South Florida. This approach uses Florida’s most vulnerable children as patches to plug the gaps in bad planning. The state has a responsibility and financial interest in finding the right allocation for each region and ensuring that its system of foster care doesn’t make matters worse.
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Editorials are the institutional voice of the Tampa Bay Times. The members of the Editorial Board are Times Chairman and CEO Paul Tash, Editor of Editorials Tim Nickens, and editorial writers Elizabeth Djinis, John Hill and Jim Verhulst. Follow @TBTimes_Opinion on Twitter for more opinion news.