Column: Children hurt from system designed to help

Published Feb. 10, 2017

It was one of our saddest days. Three young siblings, two girls and a boy who were living at the Florida Sheriffs Youth Ranches in Safety Harbor, sobbed as they were driven away by a caseworker on their way to be placed in another foster home. The girls, 12 and 4, and the boy, 9, came to our campus a few months earlier after shuffling in and out of multiple foster homes.

We worked hard to settle them into a loving, structured home environment. We enrolled them in school in the community. We began to see improvements in their behavior as they bonded with their house parents and received the counseling and therapy they needed.

A few weeks before Christmas, the local agency contracted by the Florida Department of Children and Families to oversee foster care placements told us they were moving the children to a foster family. We were told to pull the children out of school the next day. We asked if we could wait two weeks, preferring to let the students finish the semester and say goodbye to their friends. Our request was denied. An agency caseworker arrived the next day and took three crying children away from an environment where they had finally found stability.

Sadly, we have seen this story play out many times. With a preference for foster homes over residential group care, DCF has removed many children from our campuses after they have become stabilized and adjusted to living in a safe, secure home with house parents they trust. In one instance, a 13-year-old girl who was a few months away from reuniting with her mother was told she would be moved from our campus to a foster home. She was outraged. She wrote a letter to her caseworker, to the judge in charge of her case and to anyone she thought would listen. She wondered how someone could make such a big decision about her life without asking her first. "Nobody thinks this is a good idea," she wrote. Her letter was effective. The judge overruled the agency and allowed her to stay.

We were not surprised to learn of the recent findings from the Children's Bureau report, which found significant shortcomings in our state's foster care system. From ensuring stability for foster children to adequately protecting them from abuse, DCF needs to improve. Unfortunately, there has been a pattern when it comes to Florida's child welfare system. When we have a tragedy involving a child, such as the recent suicide of 14-year-old Naika Venant, we see intense public scrutiny, followed by calls for reform and promises from DCF officials to better protect our children.

In recent years, state officials have tried to move away from using residential group care programs like ours, pushing for more placements in foster homes, even when it means disrupting a child's life or splitting up siblings. The issue of foster homes versus group care has made its way to Congress and state legislatures in a battle over which model better serves at-risk children. The problem is not the model. The problem stems from low standards and insufficient accountability — and it needs to be addressed.

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While we often hear calls from child welfare advocates for quality standards for residential group care — which we fully support and have implemented across our programs — we rarely hear the same demands for foster homes. We recently worked with a group of organizations in Florida to create accountability standards for group homes. These standards, such as safety, stability and normalcy, were developed for the protection and well-being of children, from the point of entering the foster system until the transition to adulthood. Unfortunately, we don't see this same mindset of considering what is best for the child in our everyday interactions with the system.

The problems with Florida's foster care system are well documented and widely known. The findings in the recent report are troublesome. However, if approached correctly, this could be an opportunity for real reform. We need urgent and deliberate attention to implementing solutions in the best interest of our children, not because they benefit DCF, their subcontracted agencies, caseworkers or anyone else. It would be great if we can look back several years from now and see this moment as a turning point, one that helped Florida become a model for other states struggling with the issues we are discussing today. We urge DCF, state officials and stakeholders in our child welfare system to work together to fix the problems and put into place best practices for all child care providers.

Bill Frye is the president of the Florida Sheriffs Youth Ranches, a residential group care program with four campuses for boys and girls. The Youth Ranches has operated in Florida since 1957.