As Florida Faces Child Welfare Lawsuit, Legislature Tries to Speed Up Foster Care Exits

The Florida Department of Children and Families (DCF) was hit this week with a federal class-action lawsuit stemming from its failure to supply enough foster home beds in the state’s southern region, a problem the state’s legislature is hoping to address with legislation aimed at shortening the length of stay in care.

One of the plaintiffs in the complaint is a 5-month-old infant who has been placed in a group home since entering care in September 2017. Another plaintiff is a 4-year-old boy with Down’s Syndrome who has been in foster care most of his life and was placed in group homes for more than a year.

At least 30 children younger than 6 are housed in emergency shelters and group homes, a practice that runs counter to standards of care for children, according to Children’s Rights.

“There is long-term harm when kids are treated like ping pong balls, or when infants are warehoused in shelters and group homes,” said Ira Lustbader, litigation director for Children’s Rights, in the statement announcing the lawsuit. “Extreme instability and unnecessary institutionalization can physically damage children’s developing brains, impacting their learning and behavior. You might as well say, ‘We’re not giving you a fair shot in life’.”

The complaint also asserts that some older youth are placed in locked psychiatric facilities, despite having no clinical need for such a placement, simply because DCF has nowhere else to house them.

As DCF prepares a response to the claims, the state’s legislature is taking up several bills aimed at moving youth out of foster care more rapidly. One of those bills would set a 12-month limit on efforts to reunify foster youth with their parents.

“This bill is my personal story,” said State Sen. Dennis Baxley (R), of a yet-unnamed bill to establish the reunification timeline, in an interview with WUSF News. “It took me three years to get my foster kids cleared for adoption. So, anything that moves towards permanency for them is huge.”

The bill states that the “parent from whose custody a child has been taken” is responsible “to take action to comply with the case plan so reunification with the child may occur within the shortest period of time possible, but not more than one year after removal or adjudication of the child.

It would be the parent’s responsibility, the bill says, to alert the courts and child welfare agency to any barrier preventing them from meeting that timeline.

“A year is a long, long time in a child’s life,” State Sen. Bill Montford (D) told WUSF. “A year in our lives is just not that long, and we should be holding all the parties accountable to achieve what’s in the best interest of the children in a very timely manner.”

According to DCF, about 42 percent of foster youth are moved to a “permanent home” within 12 months of entering care. Of the 16,699 youth who exited care between January 2017 and January 2018, about 48 percent (7,948) exited to reunification.

The legislature is also considering two other bills aimed at moving children more quickly out of foster care. One would improve the reunification process for incarcerated parents who hope to regain custody of their children upon release. The other asks DCF, subject to available resources, to develop a family-finding program to increase the number of potential relative caregivers. That bill also asks the state’s private providers, also subject to available resources, to develop kinship navigator programs, a one-stop shop providing assistance to relative caregivers.

The lawsuit against DCF, H.G. v. Carroll, was filed by Baker McKenzie, an international law firm, and Children’s Rights, a national nonprofit, on behalf of approximately 2,000 children in foster care in Florida’s southern region.

Florida’s child welfare services are mostly run through private contracts with lead regional agencies. The lead entity in the southern region is Our Kids, a Miami-based provider that DCF pays nearly $100 million a year to care for about 3,500 youth.

According to the complaint, Our Kids is rife with challenges that endanger the children in its care. From the complaint:

“Despite DCF’s knowledge of serious systemic problems in the Southern Region, such as an extreme placement array shortage, placement instability, placement of infants and toddlers in group care, and failures to provide therapeutic and mental health services, DCF has ignored obvious dangers to all of the Named Plaintiffs, as identified below, and all children in the putative classes (collectively, “Plaintiffs”), and has continued to fund Our Kids at this same very substantial level.”

The complaint suggests that two high-profile cases in which teens hung themselves involved children in the care of Our Kids, though they are not named as plaintiffs in the suit. The two girls were each moved at least 10 times and ultimately committed suicide in shelters in 2016 and 2017, one in Monroe County and one in Miami-Dade County.

Our Kids is led by George Sheldon, who came to the organization last year after resigning abruptly amidst questions about contracting practices as head of Illinois’ child welfare agency. Sheldon once ran Florida DCF, and after that served as the top child welfare official in the Obama administration.

H.G. v. Carroll does not name Our Kids as a defendant. DCF Secretary Mike Carroll is the lone defendant named in the lawsuit.

This is Children’s Rights’ second attempt at class-action litigation in Florida. It joined local advocates and the California-based National Center for Youth Law (NCYL) in Bonnie L. v Bush, which sought relief statewide for a list of problems including a lack of foster home capacity, overcrowding in care and poor supervision of foster homes.

The Eleventh Circuit court dismissed most of the claims in 2001; in 2002, according to NCYL, Florida settled with the litigators on policies to improve services for youth aging out of care and to protect against discrimination against African American children.

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