Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Two firsts for Florida

    For many years, Florida was synonymous with child welfare failure. That's not true anymore. The state has begun a remarkable turnaround, a fact made clear from two remarkable "firsts" in 2007.

    One of them has been known for some time. In 2007, for the first time in nearly a decade, there was a significant statewide decline in the number of children taken from their homes. It is likely that the number declined again in 2008.

    The other "first" just became public this week. In 2007, again for the first time in nearly a decade, the number of child maltreatment deaths of children previously "known to the system" in Florida declined. The number had risen from 26, the last year before the Florida foster-care panic, to 54 in 2005.

    Then in 2006, the chair of the state's Child Abuse Death Review Committee, Manatee County Sheriff's Department Major Connie Shingledecker, began putting pressure on local law enforcement and mandated reporters to call the state's child abuse hotline for all sorts of deaths that used to be considered accidents, notably drowning. (See Drowning in Misinformation Jan. 6, 2008.) So while the figures shot up still further in 2006, and, on the surface, that would further support my contention that foster-care panics endanger children, they're not really comparable to previous years. But 2007 can be compared to 2006 – and in 2007, deaths of children previously known to the Florida Department of Children and Families went down. (All of the committee reports are available here).

    The committee, however, doesn't seem to want you to know this. Previous Annual Reports included bar graphs showing the three-year trend in deaths "known to the system" – that was when the deaths were going up, supporting the take-the-child-and-run rhetoric that permeates these reports under Shingledecker's leadership. In contrast, the graph in the 2007 report includes the 2007 figure only.

    That figures. Manatee County, where Maj. Shingledecker is in charge of child abuse investigations, has lagged behind the rest of the state in changing course and abandoning the take-the-child-and-run approach that dominated Florida for so long. Indeed, in 2007, a child was more likely to be torn from his or her parents in Manatee County than any other region of the state except one. (For details, see NCCPR's Florida Rate-of-Removal Index.)

    Of course, I have often warned that one should not make too much of changes in child abuse fatalities, even in jurisdictions as huge as Florida where it might be possible to see some pattern in the numbers. So if the decline in fatalities were the only indication that Florida's change in course toward family preservation was paying off, then there would be reason to view it with extreme caution. But the decline in fatalities comes in addition to years of evidence from better measures – reabuse of children left in their own homes and foster-care recidivism – and by these measures, regions in Florida that take proportionately fewer children tend to do better than those which take more.

    The likely reason: As fewer children are taken, workers have more time to find, and rescue, the children in real danger.

    But Maj. Shingledecker continues to ignore the lessons from her own data. For instance, this year's report from her committee repeats a recommendation to create a special group the real purpose of which seems to be to intimidate the state's judges. The idea is that if a judge dared to disagree with the state Department of Children and Families, and allowed a child to stay in her or his own home – or did anything else less restrictive than DCF asked for – and then the child died, the committee would "review" the judge's decision.

In fact, the far bigger problem is judges routinely rubber-stamping DCF when the agency seeks to remove a child or keep that child out of the home. As a result, the child may bounce from foster home to foster home, emerging years later unable to love or trust anyone. The child might be abused, or even die, in foster care. Yet Maj. Shingledecker has no interest in setting up a committee to review those decisions.

So now that we have still more evidence that Florida is keeping children safer as it reduces entries into foster care, there is one recommendation for improving child safety that should take precedence over all others: Ignore those, like Maj. Shingledecker, who remain wedded to the failed policies of the past.