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  1. Opinion

Editorial: Fix Florida's foster care system

Gaps in services. Long waiting lists. Language barriers for non-English speakers. Once again, a new federal report paints an all too familiar bleak picture of Florida's foster care system. Even in a tight budget year, this unvarnished assessment should jolt Gov. Rick Scott and the Legislature and prod them to provide the resources needed to repair this shredded safety net.

The report by the Children's Bureau, an agency of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, found that the state is underperforming in key areas. A review of 80 foster care cases from April to September found that the state Department of Children and Families lagged in meeting the educational, physical and behavioral needs of children in the foster care system.

In more than half the cases, child welfare workers removed children from homes without providing appropriate services, failed to make concerted efforts to deliver care or did not monitor safety plans or engage families in safety services. The report noted that similar practices were found in Florida eight years ago. And while the federal agency credited the state with correctly assessing the needs of children in care, it found "challenges" in providing these services. It cited an array of systemic problems, such as gaps in services, long waiting lists, insurance barriers and a failure to tailor aid to the cultural needs of a diverse population.

Florida has come a long way in the past 35 years, child advocates say, and by privatizing the bulk of child welfare services, which was completed by 2005, the state has been able to bring new, private-sector expertise and resources to the table. Contracting with lead agencies across the state that subcontract with local providers has given communities more of a stake in the healthy outcomes for children in their areas.

Still, cracks continue to exist throughout the system and responsibility is dispersed. The review found that DCF and the courts were struggling to reach their goals, failing in nearly half the cases to make "concerted efforts" to get children adopted in a timely manner. The review found that in the majority of cases, the quality of casework with fathers was insufficient, a key setback in strengthening the family unit. And gaps across the board for service — from transportation to anger management sessions — are worse outside metro areas.

DCF said it took the findings "very seriously" and promises to work with local lead agencies to improve service. The agency has 90 days to submit a corrective plan and is discussing with its partners proposals to reform the child welfare system. The state has created a good foundation for reporting, investigating and responding to individual cases. But it needs to make these plans and procedures as effective in practice as they appear on paper.

Increasing funding for caseworkers to handle the rising load is an obvious start. But so is a genuine commitment to get ahead of the problem. Healthy Families Florida is a nationally accredited program that helps parents provide safe and stable environments. Its track record speaks for itself: 98 percent of children enrolled were free of abuse a year after completing the program. While these services are available in all 67 counties, the state is serving only about 10,000 families and their 17,500 children; advocates favor expanding the program by 10 times to better reach Florida's at-risk population. Helping parents cope is the first step in keeping families together — and lessening the load on the foster system. It will take resources across many fronts, but this report should be a wake-up call for Florida to act.