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  1. Opinion

Column: The future of child welfare in Florida

The push to keep families together and to reunify foster children with their parents as soon as possible — especially when there are warning signs — can be detrimental.

Sadly, we've been here before: A tragedy involving the death of a child, followed by calls to investigate and promises to improve Florida's child welfare system. Here we are again talking about what went wrong, why kids are falling through the cracks and what needs to be done to prevent something like the tragic death of 2-year-old Jordan Belliveau in Largo.

As we begin this year with a new governor, a new secretary for the Department of Children and Families and an approaching legislative session, Florida is gearing up to implement policy changes mandated by the federal Family First Prevention Services Act. Many child welfare advocates have hailed this legislation as a big step in the right direction to improving foster care systems across the country. The major themes of this legislation include more emphasis on keeping families together, more funding for support services for at-risk parents and less reliance on putting children in group homes. While parts of this legislation have noble intentions, we have voiced concerns from Day One about the potential impacts to Florida's child welfare system, which is already overloaded and underfunded.

The push to keep families together and to reunify foster children with their parents as soon as possible — especially when there are warning signs — can be detrimental. We have seen it many times here in Florida. As outlined in a heart-wrenching Miami Herald piece in 2014, "Innocents Lost," our state has seen too many tragedies and failures from a system that is supposed to protect our most vulnerable children. Many of these unthinkable incidents happened when children were left in dangerous homes or, as was the case with young Jordan, returned to their parents when it was unsafe. It should concern us all that the Family First legislation being implemented nationwide could result in more children left in dangerous or deadly situations — as states make policy decisions to try and keep families together and reduce the number of kids placed into foster care.

Another wrinkle in the legislation is that it limits states' ability to place children in residential group homes, including places like the Florida Sheriffs Youth Ranches, United Methodist Children's Home, Boys Town, St. Augustine Youth Services and other high-quality homes that today take care of thousands of children, who sometimes have nowhere else to live. The attacks on residential group care, many of which are misleading, have increased in recent years, but if these homes are no longer options for foster care placements, then where will these children go? Family First encourages states to rely more on relative caregivers, who are often given a quick path to receiving children in their home. However, as a residential group home that serves many children and teens who were in relative care, we know too well the problems with over-relying on this approach. Oftentimes there are generational cycles of abuse and neglect within families, and placing a child with a relative allows the abuse to continue.

Even with these federal changes looming, Gov. Ron DeSantis and his new administration have an opportunity to provide real safety reform for Florida's children. The first step — and one of the most important — is funding. Many states are understandably worried about losing federal funds if they fail to comply with Family First and are scrambling to implement changes. Florida has already spent a lot of time and money setting up a plan called Path Forward to deal with implications of the legislation. But with a child welfare system that is among the largest and most diverse in the country, serving more than 23,000 children from the Panhandle to South Florida, we cannot expect a federal bill to solve the system's shortcomings.

We urge the governor and state legislators to look hard at the history of our child welfare system, the mistakes that have led to children being hurt or killed, and commit to doing what's best for Florida's children — including a commitment to funding the programs and support services our children need. Keeping families together is important when appropriate, but we should recognize every situation is different, and sometimes a foster home or a residential group home is the safest place a child can be. We encourage the governor to talk with longtime child welfare professionals in our state, trust in provider organizations that have solid records of taking care of children, and keep asking the question, "Is this best for our children?"

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.