FLORIDA’S CHILD WELFARE SYSTEM is strained with 6,700 more children than five years ago, an increase linked to higher rates of drug abuse — historically a top reason why kids are removed from homes — and the opioid epidemic. Caregivers and advocates say there is a lack of available foster homes as well as funding and support for preventative services to help struggling parents keep their children, and resources for friends and relatives who often take in children removed from their parents. The lack of services hurts kids in the state’s care by failing to provide them with the crucial stability and attention they need to flourish in a situation that is already traumatic. “When kids feel safe, secure, and they’ve got a family surrounding, then they can start looking forward,” said Charles Bender, CEO of Place of Hope, a faith-based nonprofit based in Palm Beach Gardens that oversees and provide support for traditional foster families as well as group residential programs. “But if you can’t provide that stuff, you can forget about it. But if you can, (children can) get on their feet pretty quickly, and that’s what we’re seeing.”
Space for foster kids overseen by Place of Hope is at full capacity with about 350 children and youth in its care from north Broward County to Vero Beach, an increase of more than a third in five years, similar to the spike in kids in the state system.
Since 2013, the total number of children who were removed from homes and placed in Florida’s child welfare system rose by 39 percent, from 17,282 in July 2013, the latest data shows, to 24,067 kids in July this year.
The total includes an increase of kids in licensed foster care homes from 5,494 to 7,210 and a rise of those in far more expensive group settings from 1,845 to 2,052. Those placed in a preferred home, with a relative or friend, grew from 9,221 to 13,577.
In addition to increases in kids coming in to care month-over-month in the last few years, kids are also more often staying in care longer, the Department of Children and Family says.
For kids entering an overburdened child welfare system, finding a sense of stability can be difficult or impossible at times. Mr. Bender said it is “very common” for kids taken in at Place of Hope homes to have bounced around, sometimes all over the state, to different living situations “10 to 15 times by the age of 10 or 12.” That can happen, for instance, if they misbehave or a foster family decides they can’t handle the child anymore for whatever reason.
Those children may in turn be more at risk for any number of factors including mental health problems and poverty, or running away and falling prey to sex traffickers or pimps.
The National Center for Missing & Exploited Children estimates that 1 in 6 runaways in the U.S. in 2016 were likely sex trafficking victims and that 86 percent of those victims were likely in the care of social services when they went missing. NCMEC says that as of Sept. 5 there are 210 active cases of children missing from Florida’s child welfare system, including five in Lee County and eight in Palm Beach County.
It is NCMEC’s policy not to release the names of those children in the state’s care who went missing, said vice president Bob Lowery.
“We don’t publish them that way only because we don’t want to label them as a foster child necessarily,” he said. “For some children that would be a certain stigma.”
Tampa resident Portia Duncan, who aged out of the child welfare system last year when she turned 18, said she often fled abysmal group home conditions, including bullying and favoritism by shift workers in group homes, and turned to sex trafficking as a way to make income. Ms. Duncan is now a member of Florida Youth SHINE, a statewide group of current and former foster children who have become advocates for other kids in their communities.
Ms. Duncan was placed in the state’s care in part because of her own anger issues and her mom’s struggle with addiction, she said.
She described living at a group home at age 12 in which she was bullied by older girls, ran away, and was assaulted, she said.
“They weren’t going to chase me,” she said. “I didn’t run, I didn’t jump out a window, I walked out the front door and walked to this little boy’s house.”
Later, she bounced from group home to group home. Eventually another girl told her she could make money being in sex trafficking rings. People who are exploited for sex or work by “force, fraud or coercion,” or who are 17 years of age or younger, are victims of human trafficking.
“I was making thousands of dollars a day, so what 13-year-old isn’t going to like that,” she said. “You feel as though you don’t have anyone there to support you.”
She continued on and off until she was 17. Ms. Duncan found a way out as a member of Youth SHINE and, finally, with foster parents she grew close to.
“We had our ups and downs, but they treat me like I’m their child,” she said.
Now she has an apartment and is enrolled in cosmetology school.
The greatest area of need is in the form of new foster parents as well as preventative programs that more often keep kids at risk of removal with their parents or place them with relatives or friends, say Community-Based Care Lead Agencies that contract with the state to administer the child welfare system in Florida, along with subcontractors such as Place of Hope. That also frees up room in foster family households and reduces assignments for overburdened case workers.
Finding the best living scenario for children at risk of or entering the welfare system is the focus of the 17 CBC lead agencies that administer the child welfare system in the Sunshine State, such as the nonprofit ChildNet in Palm Beach County.
The best way to create stability for kids in the child welfare system is the availability of more foster families, said ChildNet’s CEO Larry Rein, because that makes it more likely that individual children who are being removed from a home are placed with a family that suits their needs.
“We always really desperately need more great (foster families),” Mr. Rein said.
His counterpart in Southwest Florida, Nadereh Salim, agrees. She adds that a renewed effort to boost preventative care to more often keep children with families or place them with friends or relatives also frees up space with foster families.
“When we put kids in foster homes, we look at the needs of the children and the strength of the family and try to make a match,” said Ms. Salim, CEO of the nonprofit Children’s Network of Southwest Florida, the lead agency for Lee, Charlotte, Collier, Hendry and Glade’s counties. “So in that respect, the more the merrier.
“There’s always a shortage of foster homes, especially those that can handle some of our challenging (kids) or large sibling groups or kids that have complex trauma needs.”
Since 2013, the five-county Southwest Florida region has seen a 41 percent increase in the total number of children in out-of-home care. There were 1,500 kids in the system in July compared to fewer than 900 five years ago.
From 2008 through 2013, the monthly numbers of kids entering the Children’s Network region never rose above 100. In the last five years, counts rose above 100 at least 10 months, peaking with 148 in May 2017.
The greater numbers of kids coming into the child welfare system reflects rising drug abuse rates, Mr. Rein said.
“I think in Palm Beach we’re seeing maybe a little bit belatedly impact related to substance abuse. I can’t say with 100 percent certainty it’s opioids because the investigation does not denote the substance of choice that’s involved when there’s a removal. But we have seen a change in the makeup for reasons of removal where historically substance abuse has been the primary maltreatment in a removal at rates of 25 to 30 percent. In this last calendar year, we’ve seen that percentage climb to well over 40 and as high as 50 percent.”
Southwest Florida children’s advocates also suggest opioids is a leading factor behind the higher numbers of removals attributed to drug abuse. DCF says there is not conclusive data to confirm that because a parent’s or caregiver’s drug of choice is not specified in a removal investigation.
For six years, Estero resident Laura Fagan has served as a Guardian ad Litem, a court-appointed advocate for children entering the child welfare system who gets to know each of their cases intimately.
“So yes, I have had myself at least four newborns who were exposed to opioids,” Ms. Fagan said. “It’s not uncommon, and that’s just the newborns. I know there are just a lot of kids suffering, well, families suffering because of the opioid crisis.
“When the baby is born if mom is tested positive for substances they’re going to test the baby.”
Ms. Salim sees drug abuse issues as a primary factor in kids entering the system.
“We see again that opioid use and substance abuse in general is an initial and recurring factor that brings families into our care,” she said. “And we are seeing a rise in kids removed due to parental substance abuse.”
Mr. Bender came to the same conclusion.
“We are definitely seeing a spike of kids coming in to care again, but I don’t think it’s because somebody’s overreacting or removing (them from home) too quickly,” he said — a criticism that has been made of DCF case managers in the past when rates of kids entering the system spiked. “I think the reality is there are some really dangerous situations out there right now. The opioid epidemic is definitely one of those factors or reasons, probably a primary one.”
The state’s first choice if children must be removed from their primary caregiver or parents is to place them with close friends or relatives, Ms. Salim said. This is where the greatest numbers of children entering the welfare system go. That’s followed by licensed foster families, and finally residential group homes, where care is typically much more expensive because of paid staff members for three shifts.
“Lord knows we wish every placement was the first placement and the last placement,” Mr. Rein said. “Realistically, that’s not going to happen. But I think we can do a better job of it if we can grow the inventory of foster parents and if we can better support those caregivers.”
Solutions through prevention
Those efforts could be bolstered by the Family First Prevention Services Act signed by President Trump this year and going into effect next October, which allows states to spend federal child welfare dollars on preventative services, including in-home parenting skills programs and substance abuse and treatment services, the National Conference of State Legislatures says.
“The act will within the next year or several years dramatically change the way the feds fund foster care and child welfare,” Mr. Rein said. “Money currently spent on residential group care moving more towards foster families and relative caregivers and doing prevention work.”
Mr. Rein said Children’s Network of SWFL is a leader in the state when it comes to support for relative or close-friend caregivers, and for families to keep kids from being removed.
Ms. Salim also believes the Family First Prevention Act could encourage the type of preventative and early intervention services that could reduce the burden on foster families over time.
Children’s Network’s has pushed to send most of those kids coming into the system in the last few years to live with friends and relatives, including a kinship search unit, people who attend every shelter hearing with the sole purpose of identifying relatives or close friends a child might live with.
Then it has helped relatives keep them in another bid for stability. Sometimes that’s a matter of providing help with basic safety items such as diapers, car seats, cribs or baby formula, or talking with Children’s Network staff about where to get other types of assistance.
“We have several grants that we can immediately make those necessary safety items available to relatives so they’re able to maintain the placement,” Ms. Salim said.
That helps reduce the burden on foster families and keep a larger and more diverse inventory of foster homes available. Children’s Network creates more stability in the system, too, by training caregivers to address childrens’ sometimes bad behavior — breaking things, running away, or hurting animals, for example — in the context of the trauma they’ve experienced “so they’re not immediately saying, ‘we can’t handle this kid come and get him.’”
And Children’s Network partners with United Way to provide volunteer mentors for parents who have just gotten their child back after a removal.
These programs are reducing the burden on foster families and making the child welfare system more stable for kids, Ms. Salim says.
“Typically, we would have seen a higher increase in foster care but because we’ve been able to serve the families safer at home we’ve been able to kind of flip that on its side,” she said, in the last several years.
“No matter how bad the situation is at home the fact that you get removed from your parents, your home, and your siblings is another trauma, so if we can prevent that we are not perpetuating that trauma.”
When children are reunited with their parents, there can be joy as well as anxiety. In order to keep more kids in a stable relationship at home, Children’s Network of SWFL and the United Way partnered to create a family mentoring program with advocates for mom and dad as soon as the state reunites them with their children.
If parents agree, the volunteers will typically meet with them, as well as kids, once a week at least for the first six months after the children get home, sometimes as a parenting coach or just a thoughtful ear.
For 23-year-old Fort Myers resident and single mom Tylaesia Jordon, her mentor, Lisa Blanton, has been a bright spot in a welfare system she has often found unreasonable.
“I love Ms. Lisa, she’s very good, we talk about everything,” said Ms. Jordon, who works at a call bank helping process insurance claims. She hopes to go back to school to be trained as a medical assistant.
Her children — ages 1, 4, 5 and 8 — came back home to live with her in June. The older children had spent two years placed with their grandmother, taken by the state after she spent a day in jail on a domestic violence call.
“I felt like I gave up on them, that’s how I felt, like I left them,” she said. “I still do kind of feel like that to this day because you don’t know what they have to go through. Ain’t nobody’s going to love them like I’m going to love them. That was devastating for me and it still is to this day.”
As a single pregnant mom stringing together what income she could during the year after her children were placed with her mom, she said the state required her to pay $35 per week to attend a group session in which they were taught things like “to not fight, walk away,” she said. “Don’t say bad words. Stuff like that.”
Her mentor Ms. Blanton, 40, lives in Lehigh Acres and is a medical assistant and receptionist.
“I think these men and women benefit the most because they may not have a support group or system nearby or at all so sometimes the mentors are the only people that are their support system,” she said.
“They have my number, they know they can always call me any time. And I feel that not only do they benefit from me, but I benefit from them. They teach me how things are, how rough it can be for them.”
Ms. Blanton started mentoring just a few days after Ms. Jordon’s kids returned.
“To be a young, single mom,” Ms. Blanton said, “I know it’s very stressful for her but she tries as best she can, she’s very motivated.”
Estero resident Laura Fagan has served as a Children’s Network family mentor for several years as well as a Guardian ad Litem, a court appointed child advocate.
“Basically you end up spending more time with them (the parents) than say a case manager would,” Ms. Fagan said. “You develop an understanding of the situation. You become a resource. Maybe you help them brainstorm about different issues.”
Each family is unique in their needs, she found.
“It could be where can someone get more food, the food stamps aren’t stretching far enough. It could be diapers. There was a situation where it sounded like the child had behavioral issues, and I was able to find a contact person where that behavior could be assessed.
“There’s a lot of need and finding the right resources, you can kind of feel overwhelmed, especially some of these parents who have few resources. They struggle maintaining an income. They may or may not have transportation. There’s a lot working against some of these families.
“And another thing is to be a cheerleader, someone who observes mom and dad doing all the right things and helping them to see, you can do this.
“…One mom, I felt like one hour a week it was a chance for her to talk about what was going on, it was like her one hour. Sometimes we would brainstorm things but sometimes it just came down to listening.”
In another case, a landlord was going to raise the rent $50 a month for one of her families, a significant expense. They talked through the pluses and negatives of moving.
In the reunifications there may be great joy as well as anxiety. In one situation she recalls a baby and an only child for whose parents’ “reunification was just like way better than any Christmas you can imagine. It’s just so exciting.
“But maybe you have another situation where you have five or six kids, and they may not all come back at the same time. And then you deal with the interactions between siblings who may or may not have been living with each other.
“There’s bus schedules and afterschool care and homework to be done and chores to be done. It’s just, it’s a lot.”
Robin Rosenberg, an attorney and deputy director of the statewide advocacy group Florida Children’s First, believes the state should do more to work with parents to keep kids at home.
“So the state does not do a good job on that end,” she said. “There’s like this rescue mentality: ‘We’re going to save these poor children from their evil parents.’ And you read in the paper about horrible cases of abuse, but most of the children come into care because of neglect, substance abuse, mental health, domestic violence. And under all that is poverty.
“If the state and federal government incentivize helping families take care of their own, we would have less kids come into the child welfare system and the system could serve those who really need to be separated from their parents.”
Children in Out-of-Home Care in Florida
Out-of-Home care are children who have been removed from their parents or primary caregiver and placed with friends or relatives, licensed foster care families, in group homes or in residential treatment centers.
>> 2018: 24,067
Approved relative or friend: 13,577
Group care: 2,052
Licensed foster care: 7,210
Residential treatment center or other: 1,228
Children available for adoption: 791
>> 2013: 17,282
Approved relative or friend: 9,221
Group care: 1,845
Licensed foster care: 5,494
Residential treatment center or other: 892
>> 2018: 845
>> 2013: 552
>> 2018: 242
>> 2013: 170
>> 2018: 323
>> 2013: 140
Palm Beach County
>> 2018: 1,096
>> 2013: 940
>> What: 5K Walk & Fun Run to Prevent Child Abuse
>> When: Saturday, October 20, 2018
>> Where: Pelican Preserve, 10561 Veneto Drive, Fort Myers
>> Details: Registration starts at 7 a.m. Walk/ Fun Run Starts at 8 a.m. Sponsored by Children’s Network of Southwest Florida. For scheduling call 226-1524 or email firstname.lastname@example.org
For more information on becoming a foster or adoptive parent, volunteering or donating: Southwest Florida: www.childnetswfl.org Palm Beach County: www.visit childnet.us
Discussing Florida Weekly’s latest edition on air at NBC-2 in Fort Myers with Brenna Weick, Chad Oliver and Eric Raddatz
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