Friday, March 19, 2021

USA TODAY Network reporters document how DCF ignores abuse in Florida foster care

 Once again, it’s the price of foster-care panic 

For decades, NCCPR has pointed out the huge disconnect between officially-reported rates of abuse in foster homes, group homes and institutions and the findings from independent studies which consistently find vastly more such abuse. 

Now USA TODAY Network Florida reporters have obtained copies of thousands of reports alleging abuse in foster care that the state, in effect, covered up, by deciding they were not serious enough even to investigate as child abuse reports.   

As the story explains: 

The nearly 5,000 records detail calls to the Florida Department of Children and Families abuse hotline from teachers, health care professionals, day care workers, neighbors and others about the treatment of kids in state care. 

None of these cases would have been counted in what Florida publicly reports each year about the number of serious abuse, neglect and abandonment allegations in its foster care system. 

DCF says the accusations do not meet its definition of serious harm. Instead, they are classified as foster care "referrals," potential license violations that may prompt an administrative review and that Florida officials have fought to keep secret for years. 

As the story notes, NCCPR reviewed a sample of these reports and, using very conservative criteria, found that a great many absolutely would have been considered abuse had the accused been birth parents.  

Florida experts agreed. Here’s what they told the USA TODAY Network reporters: 

“This is stuff kids tell you about when foster homes are really bad,” said Robert Latham, a child advocate and clinical instructor at the University of Miami’s law school. … The system has an incentive not to believe children because it’s afraid to lose foster parents. Even calling in abuse reports is frustrating because you’re almost sure nothing is going to happen.” … 

In at least four counties, the same case manager assigned to complete regular visits to the foster home where the abuse reportedly occurred is often dispatched to investigate the allegation, former DCF attorney Lisa Dawson-Andrzejczyk said. 

"The vast majority of case managers are good and dedicated and appreciate the seriousness of their job, but you're going to have some who didn't do the home visits, or they visited the child at school and called it a home visit," Dawson-Andrzejczyk said. "They have every reason to not want to acknowledge that there's something they might have missed." … 

A system desperate for foster parents will let a lot of things slide, said Neil Skene, who served as DCF’s special counsel from 2008 to 2010 and chief of staff at the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services from 2015 to 2017. … 

But don’t take our word for it – or theirs. The reporters published summaries of scores of allegations. Read them yourself and ask yourself one question: What would the Florida Department of Children and Families have done had the accused been birth parents? 

It isn’t just Florida, of course. The same incentives apply everywhere, especially in places where child welfare agencies are experiencing foster-care panics - sharply increasing the number of families torn apart needlessly in response to politicians or journalists falsely scapegoating family preservation after high-profile child abuse deaths. 

That is exactly what happened in Florida.  So nothing will come of this excellent journalism from the USA TODAY network if lawmakers and others are allowed to ignore the reason DCF is desperate for foster care beds – the foster-care panic triggered by the Miami Herald’s series falsely scapegoating family preservation for child abuse deaths, and the complicity of the Tampa Bay Times in encouraging the panic.  That panic led to the needless removal of thousands of children.  All were likely traumatized by that needless removal from loving homes. Some almost certainly wound up in abusive foster homes, group homes and institutions. 

You can’t fix this with another tired foster parent recruitment campaign. And you sure as hell can’t fix it with more group homes and institutions – where the rate of abuse is even worse. You can only fix it by reducing the number of children taken needlessly from their homes.

As they read the USA TODAY Network story in the Herald and Times newsrooms – and they will – reporters and editors should think long and hard about how they contributed to what better journalists have now exposed. 

But they probably won’t.