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  1. Opinion

Let’s put foster care money where it’s needed | Editorial

And let’s help more Florida children in need—where they live.
Megan Davila, 25, a Child Protection Investigator in training, along with Jacque Salary, 46, a Child Protection Investigator and mentor for almost seven years, pictured with their case files in the family visitation room at the Child Protection Investigation Division of the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office. Investigators are the front line of the foster care system, responsible for sometimes life-or-death decisions about whether to remove a child because of issues like domestic violence and drug use in the home. [DIRK SHADD | Tampa Bay Times]

The Florida Senate is moving a sensible change that would better serve children in foster care and state taxpayers alike. SB 1326 would confront inequities in the child welfare system by creating a fairer way to fund foster care programs. The measure creates a stronger safety net for thousands of needy families. And it’s a more efficient use of tax money that addresses a particular crisis in Tampa Bay.

The bill, sponsored by state Sen. Wilton Simpson, R-Trilby, would reform what a legislative analysis found to be “significant core funding inequities” that “have been institutionalized” into Florida’s foster care system. Florida’s existing funding formula is antiquated because it doesn’t accommodate the wide variance in demand for foster services across Florida, leading to huge shortfalls in some communities that struggle with high caseloads. State spending on child services in South Florida now far outstrips other areas, including the Tampa Bay region. Last year, for example, the state spent $17,418 per child served in South Florida, yet only $8,193 per child in Pinellas and Pasco counties and $8,924 in Hillsborough. That is fundamentally unfair, especially when these very three counties have more children in foster care than any other region in the state.

Several changes under Simpson’s bill would make the system more accountable and perform better. But key is tweaking the funding formula that all but consigns high-volume communities to falling further behind. The change could bring $16 million to Hillsborough, and nearly $19 million to Pasco and Pinellas combined, over the next four years. The money would be used to hire more case managers, increase the pay of those already working and to provide a range of support services -- including on the front-end -- that could drive down the foster care pipeline, saving tax money in the long run. The extra resources would improve working conditions for case managers, who juggle 30 child-clients at a time, and help curb the costly attrition of experienced staff. And more reliable funding would relieve the state from having to resort to wasteful, stop-gap measures when local service providers face a deficit.

To their credit, Gov. Ron DeSantis and Chad Poppell, secretary of the Department of Children and Families, recognize the plan makes sense and have been supportive. Now it’s time for legislative leaders to get the bill over the line. Simpson, the incoming Senate president, has a special interest in making the funding more equitable. His district includes parts of Pasco, which over the past three years has seen a 25 percent surge in the number of children in foster care. The Pasco-Pinellas region now ranks first in the number of foster children among the state’s 20 regions, with almost 900 children in foster care in Pasco alone, up almost 200 in recent years.

Lawmakers have a chance to fix a longstanding equity issue, expand care where it’s needed and provide more bang for the tax dollar. Targeting these resources is the smartest way to strengthen Florida families and curb the number of children entering the foster care system. The governor, secretary and Simpson should continue to make the bill a priority.

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.