The settlement agreement to end a federal lawsuit over inadequate foster care in South Florida should provide some essential protections for vulnerable children in two Florida counties.
But what about the other 65 counties, and especially those in the Tampa Bay area, where rising caseloads and funding shortfalls are overwhelming the safety net? Florida needs to address the deficiencies in foster care statewide and provide local agencies the resources they need to adequately manage the child welfare system.
The Florida Department of Children and Families agreed to several conditions as part of a settlement to a federal class action lawsuit filed by the advocacy group Children’s Rights, which accused the state of failing to provide adequate housing and care to foster children in Miami-Dade and Monroe counties. As the Tampa Bay Times’ Christopher O’Donnell reported, the department has agreed to no longer place children overnight in hotels or unlicensed offices, to stop squeezing more children into over-crowded foster homes and to keep children ages 6 and younger out of group homes staffed by shift workers. These are basic, common-sense protections, and it shouldn’t have taken a lawsuit to wrangle them.
But the agreement applies only in these two counties. State officials said the agreement doesn’t create different levels of care in Florida because the concessions align with federal and state targets that apply statewide. But the agreement will mean a difference in how foster care is monitored and what potential penalties DCF could face, at least in South Florida. The settlement also designates a child welfare expert to act as an independent monitor to oversee DCF’s performance. If the department falls behind, advocates in Miami-Dade and Monroe can now call on a federal judge to demand corrective action.
Having the state acknowledge core problems within the system and a responsibility to correct them is—as advocates say—a significant step in the right direction. But DCF needs a statewide focus on addressing the shortage of foster beds and the numbers of children being bounced from home to home. “The problems with inadequate placement are pervasive across the state,” said Robin Rosenberg with the advocacy group Florida’s Children First. A Tampa Bay Times analysis of foster records between 2000 and 2017 bears out that the revolving door in placements has been an age-old problem, hindering the ability of children to develop trust and form healthy relationships.
Florida is already working through statewide improvements in foster care that were required by the federal government in 2017. But the need is also acute in the Tampa Bay area, where resources for foster services have not kept pace with needs. Hillsborough County, for example, leads the state in the number of children in care, despite its No. 4 ranking in population. In the past three years, the bay area has seen double-digit increases in youths requiring out-of-home placement, yet the budget shortfall for serving these children has grown to $11.5 million in the region this year.
It’s encouraging that more attention and resources are being directed to South Florida. But problems exist in foster care across the state, and children in every corner of Florida deserve a similar response.