| Gainesville Sun
Adapted from a Gainesville Sun editorial
Florida lawmakers have a bad habit of trying to solve social problems on the cheap. When it comes to the child welfare system, the results have been disastrous.
The state made changes to its child welfare system six years ago that were meant to protect children, but instead put some children into the care of abusers. A USA TODAY Network investigation found that nearly 200 children were sent to foster homes where abuse had been documented, while caseworkers ignored safety guidelines and skipped safety checks that would have helped prevent further abuse.
USA TODAY Network reporters described these cases in horrific detail in a recent series of news articles, which should enrage anyone who cares about the well-being of children. The cases include one St. Johns County foster family that was sent more than 70 children “even though the foster father had a report of child abuse on his record dating back to 1996 – and a rap sheet that included felony drug possession, driving under the influence and disorderly conduct for brawling with a neighbor,” USA TODAY reported. “Last year, the foster father was sentenced to 25 years in prison for sexually abusing one of his foster daughters over a seven-year period beginning when the child was just 5.”
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In another case, child welfare workers placed 20 foster children with a Lee County couple with multiple abuse allegations over six years before finally stopping after two boys reported to police that they had been locked in cages and whipped with belts. Other cases, including three from Volusia County, provide similar evidence of the Florida Department of Children and Families and nonprofit foster care agencies failing to protect some of the state’s most vulnerable children.
Inadequate state funding, overworked caseworkers, overcrowded foster homes and the privatization of foster care have all contributed to these kinds of problems. And the root cause of most children being removed from homes is one that Florida has continually neglected: a lack of access to drug treatment and mental health care for parents and other Floridians.
The USA TODAY Network series is just the latest examples of the media bringing problems with the child welfare system to light. In 2014, the Miami Herald published a series of stories revealing that more than 500 children had died when DCF left them in abusive homes.
In response, state lawmakers unanimously approved and then-Gov. Rick Scott signed into law changes that included more investigators to crack down on abusive parents. Previously the goal had been keeping families intact, but the new priority became protecting children even if it broke up families.
The changes caused the foster system to be overloaded with new cases, but the state failed to increase the money paid to foster families to make more homes available or to hire more caseworkers. By 2017, the state needed space for 6,000 additional foster children — leading to children being packed into overcrowded homes and sent to foster parents previously accused of abuse or neglect.
Rather than acknowledge the problem, DCF and nonprofit foster care agencies tried to block USA Today Network reporters from documenting these cases. DCF even tried, but failed, to get a law passed making foster parent names secret from the public.
DCF Secretary Chad Poppell has attributed some of the problems to Florida’s decision to privatize foster care in the early 2000s, shifting decision-making to 17 nonprofits across the state. While Poppell secured at least $7 million this past session for a quality assurance office that had been decimated by budget cuts, much more needs to be done.
Securing additional funding will be more difficult due to the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, but better protecting children must be a top priority. Vulnerable children deserve far better than a system that fails to prevent their abuse until news coverage forces the state to act.
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