Monday, January 18, 2021

Florida journalism begins to face up to foster-care panic; Florida lawmaklers do not.

USA Today Network stories also reveal how the Florida Department of Children and Families effectively has become a spouse abuser’s best friend. 


Confronted with the fact that his agency overlooked
horriffic abuse in foster care and routinely tears children
from the arms of battered mothers, Florida DCF Secretary
Chad Poppell offered, at best, a mea minima culpa.

                In 2014, bad journalism set off a foster-care panic in Florida.  A Miami Herald series, falsely scapegoated family preservation for child abuse deaths.  In fact, efforts to keep families together, led by two leaders of the state child welfare agency, Bob Butterworth and the late George Sheldon, had made children safer.

             The Florida Legislature responded predictably. It passed a bunch of laws encouraging even more needless removal of children from their homes, escalating the panic.

             In 2020, good journalism exposed the harm done to children by the Herald’s bad journalism.  USA Today Network Florida reporters demonstrated how the foster-care panic overloaded the system, prompting the Florida Department of Children and Families (DCF) and the assortment of privatized “lead agencies” that together mismanage Florida child welfare to turn a blind eye (to an even greater degree than before) to horrific abuse inflicted on children in foster care.

             Then the reporters published a series of stories about children needlessly torn from their mothers and consigned to the chaos of that same horrific system because the mothers were victims of domestic violence.

             Last week, some Florida legislators responded predictably – accepting at face value meaningless assurances from the current “leader” of Florida DCF, Chad Poppell.

So for starters, let’s review what Poppell and the legislature – as well as the Herald and its ally in pushing Florida to relentlessly tear apart families, the Tampa Bay Times – want swept under the rug.

The USA Today Network journalists found that the system

 …sent nearly 170 children to live in foster homes where the state had some evidence that abuse occurred. In 2016, two preschool girls said their Sarasota County foster father molested them. The state sent him 13 more children, stopping only when a third toddler reported that the 64-year-old had forced her to put his penis in her mouth. …

The number of children under 10 sent to live in group homes doubled between 2013 and 2017, adding to the cost of care and the danger to children. Some were sent to places such as the Mount Dora-based National Deaf Academy even after a whistleblower lawsuit was filed in Lake County claiming that staff had held children down, punched them in the stomach, spat on them and denied them medical care. …

 As caseloads rose, child welfare workers skipped home visits and parent training sessions because they could not keep up with required safety checks. They fabricated logs to make it appear as if the sessions took place. When caseworkers lied and omitted information from their reports, children got hurt, according to lawsuits and DCF inspector general reports. One IG report told of a child who was sexually assaulted after an investigations supervisor falsely claimed a hotline call had been successfully investigated and provisions had been made for the safety of the children involved.


At a legislative committee meeting on Jan. 12, Poppell offered up what can best be called a mea minima culpa

 “I won’t belabor the point, the quality of the work was poor,  We did a bad job,” he said, adding “DCF shouldn’t be finding out about these things in the newspaper.”

 But he neglected to mention that he had done everything he could to prevent his own agency, or anyone else, from finding out.  As the USA Today story notes:

DCF and the nonprofit agencies in charge of foster care repeatedly tried to prevent USA TODAY from obtaining information about foster parents and the allegations against them. They would not provide a list of parent names and demanded $50,000 for search and copy fees for disciplinary records. In reaction to one USA TODAY records request, DCF officials pressed legislators to pass a law making foster parent names secret from the public – an effort that ultimately failed.

Taking children from battered mothers

As I’ll discuss in more detail below, the legislative committee barely touched the issue of abuse in foster care.  And when it comes to the issue of the harm done to children taken from battered mothers, they don’t seem to have said a word. 

So let’s review what the journalists found.  Here’s how one of the stories begins: 

Her memory of the midnight attack was muddled, but her battered body bore the story. 

Purple bruises peppered her arms, legs and chest. Blood dried on her busted lip. Dark, swollen skin circled her bloodshot right eye. Hospital scans confirmed her ex-boyfriend’s attack had inflicted internal trauma too. 

Now, hours later, he was in jail and Leah Gunion was home again. Concussion-weary and tender, she tucked her toddler back into bed and sat down to nurse her infant son. An 8 a.m. knock at the door disrupted her first moment of peace. 

A woman waited at the threshold. Her polo shirt bore the insignia of the Florida Department of Children and Families. Thinking she was there to help, Leah let her in. 

For the next six weeks, Leah would battle the state for custody of her children, though DCF investigators never suggested that she injured her kids. They didn’t accuse her of using drugs or failing to provide for her boys’ basic needs. 

But she had lost consciousness from being beaten and strangled, briefly leaving her children unsupervised. They ordered Leah to never be alone with her children, or risk losing them. 

Ultimately her children were indeed taken away.  It happened right after a domestic violence counselor assured the mother it wouldn’t: 

 “She was very afraid that day of the department,” [the counselor] recalled. “And I stood right here in this building and said, ‘You’ve done everything right. Don’t worry about the department. They’re not going to take your kids.’” 

Because a police officer with a bodycam was there to provide backup, we can see what happened next:


Does Poppell know the research?

             Poppell tried to dismiss the cases as isolated while at the same time justifying tearing children from the arms of battered mothers on grounds that the children had been emotionally abused.          

But research shows that while witnessing domestic violence can harm children, emotionally, taking children from nonoffending parents harms those children far more.  One expert called it “tantamount to pouring salt into an open wound.”  That’s why in one state, New York, as a result of a class-action lawsuit, the practice is illegal.  (NCCPR’s vice president was co-counsel for plaintiffs in that lawsuit.)  In Florida, in contrast, DCF’s approach can be summed up as: please pass the salt. 

            As the Daytona Beach News-Journal wrote in an editorial. Poppell ... 

...should be aware of the national research showing how badly children suffer when they are separated from their parents  – and be wholly committed to ensuring that doesn’t happen to parents who never abused or neglected their children. 

            One reason the emotional trauma is so great in these situations: Children assume they must have done something terribly wrong and now they are being punished.  The Florida stories illustrate just that.  Leah Gunion’s children ultimately were returned, but ... 

Her toddler, whom DCF and police had picked up from day care, asked what he’d done wrong. “He thinks he was arrested,” Leah said, something she’d previously told him happens only to bad boys. 

            As for the claim that such cases are isolated, here’s what the USA Today Network reporters found: 

[I]n defiance of widely accepted best practices, Florida aggressively removes children from parents – most of them mothers – who have been battered by an intimate partner, a USA TODAY investigation found. … While other states have moved away from that approach, DCF cited domestic violence as the reason it removed more than 3,500 children from biological parents in 2018, an increase of nearly 1,400 from 2013. It is the primary reason for 25% of removals this year. … 

USA TODAY identified 22 domestic violence victims who were willing to share their stories and provide case documents that normally are hidden from public view. … Taken together, their experiences reveal a system stacked against women who are abused. Caseworkers and judges treat them like criminals on probation, even when their children have not been physically harmed, and impose a level of scrutiny that many parents could not pass. Any failing can be used against them to remove their children or delay reunification. 

Perhaps worst of all, Florida DCF effectively has become a spouse abuser’s best friend: 

Worried their children could be taken again, eight mothers say they’re now afraid to call 911 if they’re in danger. Four mothers told USA TODAY they believe their children were abused or medically neglected in a foster home. 

“The thing I regret most is that I ever called 911,” said a Martin County mother of two whose sons spent eight months in foster care after she reported to police that her boyfriend hit her and threatened her with a gun. “But I could also have been killed that night. Which one do you pick?”


The Florida Legislature responds – NOT! 

On Jan. 12, Poppell spoke at a meeting of the Florida Senate Committee on Children, Families and Elder Affairs.  He admitted that DCF had wrongly dismissed a large proportion of the allegations of sexual abuse in foster care – now that the journalists had overcome DCF’s own efforts to hide the problem.  He promised the agency will look more carefully in the future. 

But he implied that the official figure of 92 children with such allegations in fiscal year 2020 is accurate.  In fact, study after study shows that there is abuse in one-quarter to one-third of family foster homes, and the rate of abuse in group homes and institutions is even worse. 

Having just admitted that his investigations of abuse in foster care are sloppy and miss a lot of such abuse, Poppell then went on to claim that abuse in foster care had declined since 2007.  I trust the problem with that claim is obvious. 

As for the foster-care panic, Poppell claimed, of course, that all those children were taken to keep them safe.  But, as always happens with foster-care panics, it backfired.  Independent monitors found that the one time child safety really improved in Florida was when Butterworth and Sheldon were running DCF and doing more to keep families together. 

By overloading the system, the foster-care panic didn’t just make foster care less safe, it also made it harder for caseworkers to find the relatively few children in real danger. 

But safety wasn’t the real reason for taking away all those children.  That was made clear by Poppell himself – inadvertently – when he pointed out that the number of children torn from their families has returned to about where it was before the panic.  

But why? If all those children were so unsafe they needed to be taken away in 2014, why not now? 

      There are two possible explanations for the rise and fall in entries into Florida foster care: 

1.              1. By amazing coincidence, child abuse in Florida spiked at precisely the same moment the Herald was publishing its stories, and then it magically declined again. 

2.              2. Thousands of children were needlessly torn from everyone they know and love, consigned to the chaos of foster care, suffered emotional trauma akin to that suffered by children torn from their families at the Mexican border and, in some cases were horribly abused in foster care itself – all so Florida DCF could appease the Miami Herald and the Tampa Bay Times.

             So, which is more likely? 

1,280 “great things” per child? 

Speaking of unlikely, Poppell also declared that “a million great things happen in this system every day.” 

I did the math.  On average, 781 children come to the attention of DCF every day – that’s the number of children who are investigated as alleged victims of child abuse and neglect.  So if Poppell is right, his agency is so magnificent that it does an average of 1,280 great things for each one of those children!  Kinda makes you wonder why the outcomes for children who go through the system are so rotten, doesn’t it? 

And yet, instead of holding Poppell to account for any of this, his token initiatives about abuse in foster care reportedly were “well-received.” Another news account said “For the most part, the Senate committee members appeared pleased with Poppell’s responses.” 

Of course they were.  Poppell simply ignored the problem at the root of all the others – taking away too many children.  That’s the problem for which the legislature is complicit. 

The chair of the committee State Sen. Lauren Book had earlier written that “The USA Today investigative series will serve as a blueprint for me to follow in examining these issues.”  

But if she, or any other committee member, so much as uttered a word at the hearing about what was being done to the children of battered women, no news account mentioned it. 

So if you’re really going to use those stories as your guide, Sen. Book,  

● Will you introduce legislation to make it illegal to tear a child from the arms of mothers whose only crime is to, themselves, be the victims of domestic violence? 

● Will you demand that DCF stop taking away so many families needlessly, often when family poverty is confused with neglect? 

● Will you demand that DCF return to the reforms initiated under Butterworth and Sheldon, reforms shown by independent monitors to make children safer? 

● Will you demand that Florida create a program of high-quality interdisciplinary family representation like the one in New York City that has spared so many children the trauma of prolonged needless foster care, with no compromise of safety? 

● Will you at least demand that DCF follow this sound advice from the News-Journal and start 

...[examining] a random sample of child-abuse investigations that cite domestic violence as a leading cause and assigning an experienced team (preferably made up of people who don’t currently work for DCF) to review them. It should also look into allegations that assigned blame to victims of domestic violence and looked for any reason to take their children into foster care.

          And one more thing: Will you demand that Florida child welfare do what you say you are going to do and use the USA Today series as a blueprint – instead of taking its cues from the Miami Herald?