This bothers me

July 20, 2006

coffeeFrom Miami Herald:

CHILD WELFARE
Report: State care of kids still shaky
Florida children remain no safer despite their rising number in foster-care rolls, says a frequent critic of the state’s much-maligned child welfare program.
BY CAROL MARBIN MILLER
cmarbin@MiamiHerald.com

Eight years after Kayla McKean was killed by her father, setting in motion one of Florida’s worst child-welfare crises, the state continues to be gripped by a ”foster care panic” that causes investigators to destroy thousands of struggling families unnecessarily, a new report says.

In a 24-page report released Tuesday, the Virginia-based National Coalition for Child Protection Reform blasted Florida’s child welfare system for wrongly removing thousands of children from their parents, flooding an already weary social service system and causing lifelong trauma to children.

”Contrary to the common stereotype, most parents who lose their children to foster care are neither brutally abusive nor hopelessly addicted,” says the report, written by the agency’s executive director, Richard Wexler. ‘Far more common are cases in which a family’s poverty has been confused with child `neglect.’ ”

Officials at the Department of Children & Families in Tallahassee on Tuesday dismissed the notion of a foster-care panic, as they have done in prior years when the NCCPR has issued reports critical of the state.

‘The often-difficult decision on whether to remove a child from a home is based on the best possible information available, not out of `panic,’ as the report suggests,” said DCF spokesman Tim Bottcher. “Contrary to the report, the vast majority of child-abuse investigations do not result in removals.”

NUMBERS CHANGING

Bottcher said that the number of children in out-of-home care in Florida has declined by 8.5 percent since budget year 2001-2002 — at the same time that the total population of children in the state increased by more than 8 percent.

”This means children in out-of-home care, as a proportion of total number of children in Florida, has declined by more than 15 percent over the last four years,” Bottcher said in a prepared statement.

For decades, child welfare experts have fallen largely into two camps: supporters of the ”family preservation” model who favor allowing children to remain with struggling families unless they are threatened by severe abuse or neglect, and those who insist that the system should err on the side of child safety, even if that means uprooting families.

Wexler has been one of the nation’s most ardent supporters of family preservation, a movement that has gained momentum in several states and that emphasizes removing children from their parents only as a last resort.

Florida’s foster care ”panic” began in late 1998 after Kayla McKean’s father led Lake County police and a thousands volunteers on a fruitless search for his missing daughter in the Ocala National Forest during the Thanksgiving weekend, the report says. Richard Adams later admitted he beat Kayla to death.

The next year, when a Broward County juvenile judge, Kathleen Kearney, was tapped by Gov. Jeb Bush to head DCF, the number of children removed from their parents climbed 50 percent from the year before, to 21,118. By 2005, the number of children removed by DCF rose to 22,323, its highest level, Wexler says.

In some DCF districts, the removal of children continues to soar.

The number of children taken into foster care in the Fort Myers area has increased by 50 percent in recent months following the death of 13-year-old Michelle Fontanez, who police say was raped and killed by her stepfather after she had revealed that he had been raping her for years.

SPIKE IN BROWARD

Child removals in Broward County spiked by 30 percent, Wexler wrote, in the wake of another high-profile case, the Jan. 1 death of Jaquez Mason. Police have charged the three-year-old boy’s mother with scalding him to death. And the number of removals in the West Palm Beach area increased by 30 percent in 2005, after other tragedies, Wexler wrote.

In Miami, former DCF district administrator Chuck Hood dramatically reduced the number of children taken into state care, while presiding over the state’s best safety record for vulnerable children, Wexler wrote. For that, he endured constant criticism from some advocates, until he resigned last winter.

In his report, Wexler says that, contrary to accepted wisdom, removing so many children from their families has not resulted in fewer child deaths or better safety.

In fact, the report says, the spike in Florida’s foster care rolls has occurred even as measures of child safety have declined. That’s because, during such periods of crisis, child-abuse investigators and caseworkers — faced with larger and larger caseloads and shorter time frames to make decisions — are more prone to make mistakes in judgment, the report says.

”The worst part of a foster-care panic is: It backfires,” the report says. ‘Contrary to conventional wisdom, and contrary to what `gut instinct’ would suggest, foster-care panics actually make children less safe.”

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