TALLAHASSEE (CBSMiami/NSF) – The Florida Department of Children and Families is working with the agency that oversees child welfare in Miami to resolve issues that have included an overflow of kids in the area’s foster-care system.
DCF Interim Secretary Mike Carroll on Friday said the department is collaborating with Our Kids, the lead community-based care agency for Miami-Dade and Monroe counties, after a surge in the number of children coming into state care.
“I think that system of care has experienced some significant challenges over the past year,” Carroll said. “And some are directly attributable to the number of kids coming into the system.”
In a June 9 letter to Our Kids’ interim CEO Joyce Taylor, Carroll said he “continue[d] to receive reports regarding lack of appropriate placement options for children in out-of-home care, resulting in children being housed in hotels, offices and emergency group home placements.”
The agency has seen a 44 percent increase in children coming into foster care and now serves about 33 percent more children than it did in June 2013, according to Our Kids spokeswoman Kadie Black.
“This isn’t just happening in Miami,” Black wrote in an email. “This has been happening in several circuits throughout Florida during the last year, although we are seeing one of the sharpest increases in Miami.”
Florida’s troubled child-welfare system has been the focus of intense scrutiny by the Legislature and the media during the past year, and a sweeping new law revamping the system went into effect July 1.
“Whenever there is significant change to the system, I think it has the effect of stressing the system,” Carroll said. “And not just Our Kids — I’m talking the whole system of care.”
Carroll followed up his letter to Our Kids by sending a “peer consultation team” to Miami, including the chief executive officers of two community-based care agencies, Lee Kaywork of Family Support Services of North Florida Inc., in the Jacksonville area, and Lorita Shirley of Eckerd Community Alternatives in Pasco and Pinellas counties.
Shirley said the team’s charge was addressing the overflow of children into the system, but “we are looking at all aspects of how that system is operating.”
There are currently no children in state care housed in Miami-Dade hotels, Carroll said Friday.
Carole Shauffer of the San Francisco-based Youth Law Center said the interim secretary showed foresight in making the move.
“It’s completely unacceptable to have kids staying in unlicensed facilities,” she said. “Had DCF not taken some action to end this, they would have been subject to liability themselves.”
Shauffer noted that the Youth Law Center sued the department and Big Bend Community Based Care in 2006 for having children sleep in a DCF conference room. After Bob Butterworth became DCF secretary the next year, the department settled the lawsuit. Big Bend, which provides services in Tallahassee and surrounding areas, went on to collaborate with the Youth Law Center on the Quality Parenting Initiative, designed to increase the number and caliber of Florida foster placements.
But placements continue to be a problem in Miami and elsewhere, said Robin Rosenberg, deputy director of the advocacy group Florida’s Children First. She called it “incredible” that an area the size of Miami-Dade County would have so few places to serve the most troubled or traumatized kids.
“It is outrageous that children who need a therapeutic placement are parked in hotels,” Rosenberg said. “And that is not Our Kids’ responsibility.”
She said all the responsible state and local agencies — DCF, the Agency for Health Care Administration, managed-care providers and the managing entities that oversee substance abuse and mental health services — should put their heads together and figure out how to develop enough therapeutic placements to keep kids in their communities.
“They’re getting sent to Jacksonville or Orlando,” Rosenberg said. “How do you get family therapy if your family is three hours away?”
That said, members of the peer consultation team say the issues are being resolved. And former state Sen. Ron Silver, who is now a member of the Our Kids board, said the agency’s relations with DCF have improved “immensely.”
“We are thankful to DCF and our partnering (community based care organizations) for taking the time to meet with us so we can identify best practices from around the state to ensure we are able to provide the absolute best possible service for children and their families,” Black wrote.
Additionally, Our Kids, which has been without a permanent chief executive officer since April, last week hired Jackie Gonzalez for the post. Gonzalez spent the past 13 years at the Children’s Home Society of Miami, most recently as executive director, according to Black.
This report is by Margie Menzel with The News Service of Florida.