Editorial: Florida's foster care system needs money, attention

A Tampa Bay Times analysis reveals thousands of kids in foster care were moved once a month.
Chris Card, chief of community-based care for Eckerd Connects.
Chris Card, chief of community-based care for Eckerd Connects.
Published Jan. 4, 2019

One child said she bounced between so many homes "you don't even want to unpack." Others carted their belongings in trash bags, not sure from week to week or month to month where they would bunk for the night. This has been the reality for thousands of Florida children, who were brought into foster care as a temporary protection from an unsafe home. But many of these children were further traumatized by a safety net that didn't serve them or society. Florida's foster care system needs more money, more attention and more accountability - a priority the incoming governor, Ron DeSantis, should set for his new administration.

A Tampa Bay Times investigation by Christopher O'Donnell and Nathaniel Lash found that thousands of Florida's foster children were put at risk of further psychological damage by an overburdened system that repeatedly bounced them from home to home and family to family. The reporters analyzed more than one million child welfare records recording the movements or placements of about 280,000 foster children under Florida's care between 2000 and 2017. Records show that thousands of foster children led transient lives, many staying only a few nights in one place before being moved on to the next foster family or group home.

About 1,500 children stayed in 12 different homes in a single year, the records show. More than 7,500 children moved an average of once a month over a six-month period. Almost 2,000 children had six placements in just one month. The majority of children found long-term foster placements. But that was not the case for many, records show, most of them older teens, some with severe behavioral problems, issues like substance abuse or brushes with the Florida juvenile detention system.

With each move, children lose touch - with siblings and other family members, friends, schools and classmates and normal routines. That instability can drag down their grades, create trust issues and interfere with a child's ability to mature and form healthy relationships. That's one reason why the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services sets a national standard of 4.12 placements per 1,000 days in foster care to measure whether a state or local child welfare system is providing stable foster home placements. Florida, with a current placement rate of 4.48, falls short of that target.

State officials downplayed the Times' findings, pointing out the analysis includes placements before foster care was privatized under former Gov. Jeb Bush, a process that was completed in 2006. But the state's data shows that the agencies serving five local jurisdictions in Florida falling well short of the federal standard are responsible for about 60 percent of the state's foster children. That includes Eckerd Connects, the agency that runs foster care in Hillsborough County, which has struggled more with placements than any other county.

Chris Card, who was hired in May as chief of community-based care for Hillsborough, Pinellas and Pasco counties by Eckerd Connects, said progress is being made, as more permanent housing is found for hard-to-place children. But he is right that a high-volume county like Hillsborough needs additional funding to meet this disproportionate need. Social service agencies understand that while group homes may accommodate a larger case load, they are inappropriate settings for many adolescents, who are already struggling with privacy, self-esteem and other concerns.

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The state needs to provide foster families and nonprofits with greater resources and support. Children removed from family homes need more than physical protection from neglect and abuse. A public-private effort to enlist more foster families and to provide stabler, longer-term housing could help children in their formative years better make the transition into adulthood. The incoming governor should take the opportunity to make a real mark on Florida's foster system and to offer a more promising future for thousands of young Floridians.