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Florida's Foster Care System Woes Spark Furious Debate On Fixes

The move from keeping troubled families intact to placing the children in foster homes hasn't worked as advocates had hoped.

A critical newspaper story has roiled Florida's child welfare system. Lawmakers and advocates are concerned. But they have very different ideas on how to fix the problem.

A few weeks ago, USA Today published a blockbuster story, highly critical of Florida's child foster care system. Before 2014, the system, under the supervision of the state's Department of Children and Families, typically tried to keep dysfunctional families together, unless the kids were in serious and immediate danger. What changed was reaction to another newspaper expose. This came from the Miami Herald, which documented much continuing child abuse - and even child deaths - from keeping so many families intact. State officials, including then-Governor Rick Scott, changed the default policy to putting far more kids into the foster care system. But that had pitfalls of its own. A tsunami of new foster kids quickly overwhelmed the system. And some of those children wound up abused by their foster parents. Quick to express frustration at all this, Florida State Senator Lauren Book, a Democrat from Broward County.

"If a child is going to a home, we make sure that the home is safe and we've checked. If there's a complaint or an issue with a foster family, those foster families are put on a freeze. At no time should any foster child be sent to any foster home where there's any question about their fitness to take care of those children."

Before the big change in policy, the Florida Department of Children and Families used to have total responsibility for the foster care system. But it's now being run by seventeen regional community based care organizations.

Book thinks this also was a mistake.

"(We've) for lack of a better term, farmed out some of the management pieces to these community based organizations. And the Department's ability to hold those agencies accountable is very slim to none."

The South Florida senator says she'll call for some sweeping reforms in the state's foster care system during the 2021 Lawmaking Session.

"You can't just look at the problem. You have to go to the roots. And you don't solve the root cause issues, you'll never going to get to a place where children are safe. It's an impossibility."

But not everyone agrees with Book's assessment of the problem.

"And I was frankly furious by what I read of Senator Book, which was: 'How dare this happen? Do something about it!' With not one word about the fact that the problem is taking away too many children in the first place. And if she's not willing to acknowledge this, it'll never get fixed."

That's Richard Wexler. He's the executive director of the National Coalition for Child Protection Reform based in Alexandria, Virginia. He believes too many Florida children are taken from families in which no deliberate abuse has taken place.

"In many cases, you are talking about situations in which family poverty is being confused with neglect. And in which very small amounts of financial resources would be enough to keep the family together."

And while he admits the past wasn't perfect, Wexler believes Florida should reconsider its former child welfare default philosophy that he calls preferable to what happens today.

"When you had 3 visionary leaders: Charlie Crist, Bob Butterworth and George Sheldon. That's what they set about to do and relatively speaking, they succeeded. So, yes! I wish the Florida Legislature would do better. But when those 3 were leading the system, they made things better and safer for children without a vast infusion of new funds."

Another voice and viewpoint belongs to award-winning child advocate Jack Levine, founder of the 4Generations Institute. He, too, was appalled by the USA Today article on the state of the state's foster care system.

"These children are not only neglected and abused by their own family members, but oftentimes when they come into the system, we have not provided the resources necessary to really recruit and retain quality foster parents."

Levine is convinced the issue is not the exclusive responsibility of the Department of Children and Families and its contract agencies.

"The community has pretty much separated itself from these children. Many grew up in dire poverty and unreliable surrogate parenting. And here we are again, on a merry-go-round of worrying and wondering what is next."

Similar to the fear and uncertainty experienced by so many of the kids who wind up in foster care. Levine sees modest hope for help in the next lawmaking session.

"I think Senator Simpson's bill, which is basically forced us to look at the accountability measures that are necessary to not only put money in the system, but to make sure that money is well spent. But it's not enough when we have five times as many children referred for foster care as we have foster care homes."

Which returns us to the ultimate question: "What's best for the kids?"

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