News, Jazz, NPR
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00
0:00
Available On Air Stations
Courts / Law

Florida Sheriffs Youth Ranches Caught In The Middle In 'Family First' Funding Changes

Teens at one of six Florida Sheriffs Youth Ranches get a variety of services, including counseling and classroom education.
There could be far fewer students such as these at the Florida Sheriffs Youth Ranches under a new federal law that limits placement of troubled children into group homes or residential treatment. Credit: Florida Sheriffs Youth Ranches

Florida's sheriffs are worried that some vulnerable children are caught in the middle of a struggle between foster care and group homes, which also threatens their youth ranches.

The Family First Prevention Services Act of 2018 was designed to allow states to spend child welfare funds for troubled children and teens to stay in their homes versus being placed in foster care or in a group home.  It went into effect at the beginning of this month.

The law, however, also prioritized foster care over group homes in dealing with troubled youths, some of whom refused a foster parent placement or for whom foster parents were not available.

That has left the sheriffs and other group home operators scrambling for support to delay the law. 

That includes media appearances by sheriffs like Chad Chronister of Chad Chronister and allies, including Thaddeus Bullard, better known as the professional wrestler Titus O’Neil. He is a product of the youth ranches, having spent time there when he was a teen.

Group home advocates say they bring a necessary piece to the child welfare puzzle.

“When you're looking to bring stability to children, and overlooking and actually completely cutting out a component of care, you do have to ask the question why?” said Maria Knapp, vice president of donor and legislative affairs for the Florida Sheriffs Youth Ranches, which operates six facilities in the state. “What is the purpose of cutting out a great placement opportunity for children, especially when our state struggling with great places for children to live?”

florida_youth_102319.png
Group home placements account for about eight percent of all child welfare referrals in Florida. Source: Department of Children and Family Services

At its heart, Family First allows states to spend money to keep troubled kids in their homes instead of limiting federal funds to paying for intervention after removal has occurred. Florida, however, has had a waiver from federal rules for several years allowing that same “family preservation” approach, sometimes with tragic results.

A 2014 Miami Herald investigation found that in the decade that Florida pursued family preservation instead of placement as a goal, 477 children died despite state child welfare workers being notified about problems beforehand.

“So there's a concern there about a push for all this front-end [intervention] that we've been through,” Knapp said. “But there's also concern that we have a serious lack of safe stable foster homes in our state. And the Family First Prevention Services Act significantly narrows the federal funds available for residential group homes, of which there are a number across our state who provide a safe, stable home environment.”

Florida has nearly 2,000 children and teens in group homes, about eight percent of all children in the state's system for child protection. The Family First law restricts states from placing children in group homes, except in limited cases. Florida could lose federal funds if it goes outside those limits.

The state’s child welfare budget is dependent on federal funding covered by Family First, making up almost 40 percent of what Florida spends annually.

The Florida Sheriffs Youth Ranches operates six facilities throughout the state, including three in the Tampa Bay region: Safety Harbor, Bradenton and Bartow. 

The act enjoyed broad support from children's advocates and lawmakers when it was passed. Many children’s advocates have supported moving away from group homes or residential treatment except in limited, short-term cases.

Group home operators and supporters worry that will leave hard-to-place children sleeping on office floors instead of being cared for in foster care or at high-quality group homes.

Critics of Family First are trying to win a reprieve from the law, or at least some breathing room.

Senators Marco Rubio, R-Florida, and Dianne Feinstein, D-California, co-sponsored a bill in January that would delay the Family First Act. Their bipartisan Senate Bill 107 has not been heard in committee yet.

A House version of the bill is sponsored by Florida Reps. Greg Steube, a Republican from Bradenton, and Kathy Castor, a Democrat from Tampa, with Republicans Matt Gaetz, Gus Bilirakis and Neal Dunn co-sponsoring. The National Association of Counties also has supported the delay.

The bill, however, has already been opposed by children’s groups and the American Academy of Pediatrics, who wrote to Rubio and Feinstein to say their bill would hurt efforts to move forward on the changes. 

“S. 107 would undermine the success of Family First by continuing costly waivers that benefit a limited number of states at the expense of enacting a comprehensive policy to provide all states needed resources and supports to make Family First succeed,” the group wrote.