TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – A bill aimed at reducing instability for foster children has started to move forward in the Florida Senate and would require the child-welfare system to match kids with their best placement options -- rather than, as critics charge, the first beds that are handy.
Sponsored by the Children, Families and Elder Affairs Committee, the bill (SPB 7018) would require the use of a process to determine which settings -- from relatives or friends to foster families or group homes -- offer abused children the best chance to recover and thrive.
Under the bill, the Florida Department of Children and Families would work with privatized community-based care lead agencies to create what's called a continuum of care for foster kids, with options ranging from adoption by close relatives to being placed in therapeutic group homes.
In part, the bill would ensure that an array of services -- such as intervention, domestic-violence counseling and mental-health and substance-abuse treatment -- would be available to keep maltreated kids from having to leave their family homes in the first place.
"Right now, group care is the luck of the draw," said Carole Shauffer, who is with the San Francisco-based Youth Law Center and leads Florida's Quality Parenting Initiative. "If you come in at a certain time of the day or night and they can't reach a foster parent, then you go into a group home. And you do not come out of that group home ever, unless you're unified (with biological parents) or the group home ejects you."
Of teens who leave foster care without families, according to the Children's Home Society of Florida, 33 percent will be homeless within three years and 60 percent will have babies within four years. Half will be unemployed, while 66 percent will be high-school dropouts.
The committee bill would require that foster homes, group homes and other placements demonstrate that children are recovering from trauma while in their care. That provision was already in the works before news reports alleging that several South Florida group homes allowed drugs, prostitution, gangs and truancy -- on the taxpayers' dime.
"Whether you're a group home or a regular home, there are going to be certain expectations," said Sen. Nancy Detert, a Venice Republican and a member of the committee, told The News Service of Florida. "We're not looking to put them out of business. We just want to make sure the good ones do well and the bad ones go out of business."
The bill represents a different approach from a group-home measure that Detert proposed for the 2015 session. That measure was aimed at eliminating the use of shift workers at group homes in favor of the use of a more family-style model with house parents. It followed a report by the Legislature's Office of Program Policy Analysis and Government Accountability, which found that roughly 11 percent of Florida children who are removed from their families are placed in group homes rather than with relatives, friends or foster families.
Group homes cost the state nearly $81.7 million for approximately 2,200 children in 2013-2014 -- more than $37,000 per child. In comparison, the state rate for foster families who care for children aged 13 to 17 is $527 per month, or $6,324 per year.
The report also found that 57 percent of Florida group homes use shift workers, who some children's advocates said are less likely to develop positive relationships with the youngsters in their care.
Detert's bill died during the spring session, but it led to a work group by the Department of Children and Families and the Florida Coalition for Children, which lobbies for group homes as well as community-based care lead agencies.
The new bill has received cautious indications of approval from those players, including Shelley Katz, chief operating officer of the Children's Home Society of Florida, which represents a number of group facilities.
"While there are still many elements of the bill that we think warrant further discussion, the focus on the need for a continuum of services beginning with services to support families and maintain children safely in their homes through a variety of out-of-home placements is aligned with the reality that our children come with a wide range of challenges and there is no 'one size fits all' solution to meeting the needs of at-risk, abused and neglected children," Katz wrote in an email.
The measure unanimously passed the Senate committee last week, but as yet has no House companion.
"We do see it going in the direction that the department's going, that our secretary is an advocate for," said Janice Thomas, the Department of Children and Families' assistant secretary for child welfare. "And that is that children be placed, initially, in the best placement. … What's best for the child and what their needs are -- that's what's included in this bill."