Sunday, March 8, 2009

Why child welfare is improving in Florida – but not in Michigan

There is more evidence that Florida, once synonymous with child welfare failure is making significant improvements. And there are lessons in Florida's progress for the Obama Administration and the other states – especially Michigan.

    Florida has an unusual waiver which allows it to spend federal money normally restricted to foster care on better alternatives as well. Florida is the only state-run system to have such a waiver. Michigan accepted the same deal, but, after issuing press releases announcing its acceptance and doing all sorts of media interviews to tout it, the state suddenly slinked away from the deal at the last minute. Sadly, this kind of behavior is typical for Michigan, as is documented in our recent report on Michigan child welfare.

    A condition of the waiver is periodic independent evaluations. The most recent is available here: It covers the period ending with Fiscal Year 2007. Among the findings:

The rate of reabuse of children within six months after a case has been closed was cut in half.

    In addition to statewide figures, the independent evaluation also measures results for Florida's semi-autonomous regions. The best record on avoiding re-abuse was in the Miami region - where the former DCF regional administrator, Alan Abramowitz, put a very high priority on family preservation.

    The Miami region also had one of the best records on the other key safety measure, foster care recidivism – that is, the proportion of children discharged from foster care to parents or another family member who re-entered within 12 months. The Tampa region, another with a strong emphasis on family preservation, also did particularly well.

    There was significant statewide improvement on the proportion of children for whom a case was opened who had to enter foster care within a year. The figure was 15.7 percent in FY 2007, down from 23.3 percent the year before. And again, the Miami region was among the top performers.

    One reason these data are so important is because of the implications for federal child welfare policy.

    President Obama says he wants to curb entitlements and end wasteful spending. Making the Florida waiver the norm instead of the exception – at a minimum on a voluntary basis – would be a great way to do both. Ideally, the Obama Administration would move to close the open spigot of foster care funding and require states to accept their foster care payments as a flexible flat grant, which could be used both for foster care and for better alternatives.

In Florida the data are important for another reason: The backlash.

What backlash? The one that hasn't happened yet. But it will.

    When you stop taking so many children, you hit a lot of vested interests right in the wallet. That's probably one of the key reasons Michigan chickened out. And there are plenty of other people who simply can't get past the take-the-child-and-run mentality and its simple, visceral appeal.

    Since no system can prevent every tragedy, sooner or later another high-profile death of a child "known to the system" will galvanize Florida, the way the case of Kayla McKean did more than a decade ago.

    That's when the take-the-child-and-run crowd; the people who view the horrors of Florida's foster care from 1999 through 2006 panic as "the good old days" will come out of the woodwork, fingers wagging, and try to scapegoat reform for the tragedy.

    They're counting on everyone forgetting all the tragedies during the era of foster care panic in Florida. They're counting on everyone forgetting that, even as entries into care soared in Florida, so did deaths of children "known to the system." They're counting on everyone forgetting Rilya Wilson, and the chaos her case symbolized. (And if readers of this Blog don't remember that name, it kind of proves the point.)

    And they're counting on everyone ignoring data like those in this new, independent study, which show that Florida's new emphasis on family preservation is making children safer.

    Florida still has a long way to go. Like Michigan, the state is among those hardest hit by the economic collapse, and the child welfare agency and programs that agency uses to keep families together are going to see budget cuts. But unlike Michigan, at least Florida has the waiver to cushion the blow.