Monday, September 27, 2010

Foster care in Florida: State’s reforms are NCCPR's latest “Way to do Child Welfare Right”

UPDATE, SEPTEMBER 28: Check out Sarasota Herald Tribune columnist Tom Lyons' take on Florida's improvement, and the waiver that did so much to make it possible.

Less than a decade ago, child welfare failure could be summed up in a single word: Florida.  The fact that a five-year-old foster child could disappear for more than a year before anyone at the Florida Department of Children and Families even noticed became a symbol of failure not just in Florida but nationwide.  The case was only the most visible example of how the take-the-child-and-run approach brought to DCF in 1999 had collapsed the entire system.

                Today in child welfare, Florida stands for something else: It stands for openness, innovation, and progress.  And it stands for the fact that you can’t have child protection without family preservation. That’s why today NCCPR adds the transformation of child welfare in Florida to our list of “Ways to do Child Welfare Right.”  

Two changes were crucial: First, in the tradition of a “team of rivals,” Gov. Charlie Crist, then a Republican, brought in one of the state’s most popular Democrats, former Attorney General Bob Butterworth, to lead DCF.  The joke at the time was that when Butterworth failed, Crist could blame the Democrats.  If that was the plan, the joke was on Crist.  For starters, Butterworth and his successor, George Sheldon (another Crist rival) started by dragging the agency out of its bunker, initiating a policy of telling the press and public as much as the law allowed, and interpreting all ambiguity in favor of openness. 

                Butterworth also started listening to current and former foster children – for real, not for show.  And that probably was the single most important factor leading him to reverse the agency’s course and embrace safe, proven approaches to keep children in their own homes.  Sheldon built on that as well.  Most recently, he launched an initiative to try to make foster children’s lives as normal as possible – that is, an effort to reduce barriers to living a normal family life that most of us don’t even think about – like the difficulties in getting a driver’s license or the requirement for background checks before a foster child can sleep at a friend’s house overnight. 


                But the Crist administration doesn’t deserve all the credit.  Former Governor Jeb Bush, who did so much to plunge the agency into chaos, also made one crucial decision that made recovery from his own mistakes easier: He accepted a waiver from federal funding restrictions.  Money that, in other states, can be spent only on foster care, Florida can spend on better alternatives as well.   (It’s been argued that Bush’s decision had nothing to do with enlightened public policy and everything to do with him wanting to help his brother, the former President.  But who cares?  It worked).

                It’s all led to a 35 percent reduction in the number of children torn from their families between 2006 and 2009.  Independent evaluations, required by the waiver, have found that child safety improved.  If the Senate follows the House and approves legislation to restore the authority of the Department of Health and Human Services to issue such waivers, it will be easier for other states to achieve similar results.

                But there was one last barrier to adding Florida to our list.  No state could be considered a national leader in child welfare as long as it banned fit, loving parents from adopting just because of their sexual orientation.  The worst kept secret in Florida is the fact that the Crist Administration’s DCF leadership hated that law, but it was not struck down by a Florida appeals court until last week.

            Florida still has a long way to go.  It’s a big state and not every region has gotten the message.  So even with all the progress, the rate of child removal in Florida still was slightly above the national average in 2009, the most recent year for which data are available for every state.  And, as with all good systems, there still are huge mistakes in all directions.  Some children still are left in dangerous homes.  Other children still are needlessly taken from their families.  As we note in the publication we now call Thirteen Ways to do Child Welfare Right: All of the things that go wrong in the worst child welfare systems also go wrong in the best – but they go wrong less often.

                In addition, there is a powerful group of providers, advocates and others who still don’t get it – people who actually view the take-the-child-and-run era as the good old days.  And they never miss a chance to exploit the inevitable tragedies in a huge system to advance their agenda.

                But for now, Florida child welfare is heading in the right direction.  And while other reformed systems had to significantly change direction to start doing child welfare right, for Florida it was even harder.  In Florida it required a U-turn.