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Florida foster care needs more consistency | Editorial

Placement decisions should be made on a case-by-case basis, but with some consistency.

Child placement cases are tough. They often involve complex circumstances and gut-wrenching decisions about what’s best for the child. But the Florida Department of Children and Families has made some conflicting calls in recent months, outlined in reporting by the Tampa Bay Times’ Christopher O’Donnell. The questionable decisions seem to run counter to the department’s policies, or at least raise questions about the vastly different outcomes. Placement decisions should be made on a case-by-case basis, given how no two are exactly the same. But they need to be consistent enough for people to maintain faith in the process.

Two cases stand out from O’Donnell’s reporting. At first, Florida child welfare workers encouraged a North Carolina couple who wanted to adopt the younger brother of their adopted daughter. Later, they were denied. The reason: Removing the 1-year-old boy from his foster family would be too traumatic, they were told. Yet in June, the Florida Department of Children and Families asked a judge to remove a 3-year-old boy from his stable foster family in Pasco County so he could be placed with two half-siblings he didn’t know. The two cases aren’t anomalies, experts told O’Donnell.

Why does the department fall back on a “keep all siblings together” precedent that it hasn’t historically upheld? State data shows that the department has not been able to keep every relative together. About 35 percent of siblings in foster care live in different homes. The executive director of the Florida Guardian ad Litem office attributes that to differing circumstances: “We firmly believe children in the dependency system have already been traumatized, and we want to avoid additional traumas. As you might imagine, not all siblings have functioning relationships, and some don’t know one another at all.”

That makes sense, but it only raises questions about the decision to remove the 3-year-old Pasco boy. He had lived more than half of his life — since he was 15 months old — with foster mom Deborah Marlet, who was asked by a case manager to start adoption proceedings. Before the adoption was finalized, foster care agencies reversed course and said they wanted him placed with a new foster mom who was taking care of his two half-siblings. In June, the judge agreed.

“In every case, we prioritize the best interest of the child involved, which as you can imagine, is dependent on the circumstances and never cut and dry,” a DCF spokeswoman said. But why tell a foster mother she could adopt the child whom she already treated as a son only to recommend later that the child be removed? And what was the reason for encouraging a couple to adopt their daughter’s brother only to deny them after they had spent thousands of dollars on the process?

Too many inconsistent decisions will undermine the system. Adopting and fostering children is hard enough without child welfare agencies whipsawing families between hope and despair.

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 Graham Brink, and editorial writers Elizabeth Djinis, John Hill and Jim Verhulst. Follow @TBTimes_Opinion on Twitter for more opinion news.

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