Thursday, June 28, 2018

Why is Tampa, Florida child welfare probably going to get even worse?

Because one of the biggest cheerleaders for one of the worst leaders in modern child welfare history is now in charge of making it better.

It was WFLA-TV, not the Tampa Bay Times that exposed the chaos engulfing
Hillsborough County child welfare, including foster children forced
to spend their days in cars at a convenience store parking lot.
In a column for Youth Today on June 21, I discussed a report blasting the child welfare system in metropolitan Tampa, Florida, for tearing apart families needlessly – and illegally. The report, commissioned by the state child welfare agency itself found that workers  are doing this, in part, because they are so afraid of being vilified by the Miami Herald and/or the Tampa Bay Times if they leave a child in her or his own home and something goes wrong.

This has plunged the entire child welfare system in Hillsborough County into chaos, complete with children being literally parked - forced to spend days and sometimes nights in cars in a convenience store parking lot, as revealed by WFLA-TV, which has beaten the Times on this story over and over again.  Of course, the overload also has made it even less likely that caseworkers will find children in real danger.

Unfortunately, one of the key steps taken since the crisis emerged is likely to make things worse.

It has to do with that time honored practice in child welfare, the Ritual Sacrifice of the Agency Chief.

In Florida, much of the responsibility for child welfare rests with private “lead agencies” These “lead agencies” have huge contracts to sort-of oversee child welfare in their regions. (I say “sort-of” because so many different groups have responsibility for different parts of the system that it’s not clear if anyone actually is in charge.  A cynic, or just someone familiar with Florida child welfare, might conclude that the system was designed for easy buck-passing.)

The lead agency for Hillsborough County is Eckerd Connects.  They got the contract after high-profile tragedies prompted the state to oust the previous “lead agency,” Hillsborough Kids, in 2012.

Now, of course, with Eckerd Connects having made everything worse, that agency is being threatened with losing its contract.  So they replaced their chief of community-based care. But she was replaced by a questionable choice.  Eckerd has now put in charge of an agency that holds far too many children in foster care* someone who built his career cheerleading for taking away too many children.

They’ve brought in Chris Card, whose track record includes formerly serving as CEO of Hillsborough Kids – the lead agency that Eckerd Connects replaced. (He was not their CEO at the time Hillsborough Kids lost the contract.)

But the connection to Hillsborough Kids is not the reason this choice is so problematic.

Difficult as it may be to believe at the moment, there was a time when Florida child welfare was even worse than it is now. It was run by the single worst leader I’ve ever encountered in child welfare anywhere in the United States.  It was run by someone who set off the largest single-year foster care panic I’ve ever seen anywhere in the United States.  It was run by a former judge named Kathleen Kearney.  Kearney was appointed in 1999 by then-Gov. Jeb Bush in the wake of a high-profile child abuse death.  In her first year, the number of children taken from their parents in Florida skyrocketed by 50 percent – because that’s what she wanted.

That’s not because she was ill-motivated. On the contrary, I view her as a tragic figure in child welfare precisely because she truly believed that this kind of confiscation of children would protect them.  It backfired so badly that Florida became the national model of child welfare failure, generating headlines across the country. Full details are in NCCPR’s reports on Florida child welfare.

The Kathleen Kearney fan club

But Kearney did have her fans.  In fact, one of the leaders of the Kathleen Kearney Fan Club was Chris Card.  At the time he was running one of the first experiments in child welfare privatization, in Sarasota.

Even as Florida was careening into chaos, in March of 2000, Chris Card was still cheerleading. Here’s what he said:

Under the leadership of Gov. Bush and Judge Kathleen Kearney … Florida is now in the beginning stages of a full-fledged reform of the child-protection system. ... With [the governor's] significant financial commitment and the changes in policy and law that make the focus of the system 'child safety,' we ought to be shouting from the mountain tops!

Not only did Card gladly buy into the  Big Lie of American child welfare, that child removal equals child safety,  he went on to demean efforts to keep families together. Here’s what he told the Tampa Tribune in 2002:

When you go into their living rooms for the first time, they say, “Get out of my house.” We've implemented some voluntary programs for people and tried to prevent the abuse from happening. To think that's going to make a dramatic difference is a tough sell.

In fact, a variety of voluntary programs have made a dramatic difference all over the country.  For starters, if the person at the door isn’t from an agency that wants to take children away, families are more likely to say “come in” instead of “get out of my house.”

But Card backed his ugly words with action. When he first came to Hillsborough County to run Hillsborough Kids, he quickly canceled contracts for programs to help keep families together.

When Card resigned from Hillsborough Kids in 2005, a story in the St. Petersburg Times (as it was known then) reported:

Board members of Hillsborough Kids also have been asking Card to work to reduce the number of children in Hillsborough County who have been removed from their homes and placed in various types of foster homes. A DCF report issued late Tuesday says the agency should have done a better job in this area.

(The story does not appear to be available online.)

You can read more about Card’s track record in this excerpt from our 2002 report on Florida child welfare.

So now, with Hillsborough County taking away children at the highest rate in Florida, even as Florida tears apart families at a rate above the national average, and with the state’s own report condemning the high rate of removal and calling it illegal, are we really supposed to believe that the best person to turn this around is – Chris Card?

Granted, a primary tenet of the family preservation movement is that people can change. But does Chris Card want to change?

*-Eckerd would argue that the high rate of removal is not their fault. They don’t make initial decisions on removal because Hillsborough is one of a handful of Florida counties where sheriff’s deputies do the child abuse investigations. But the state report noted that part of the reason the deputies take so many children is they have no confidence in Eckerd’s in-home services.  And, as the lead agency, Eckerd has the most influence in the system. Eckerd could educate the deputies about the harm of removal and press the department not to take so many children needlessly. They also could press the courts to return children they thought the sheriff’s deputies had removed needlessly. Chris Card is, at best, an unlikely choice for such tasks.