Child Welfare

Why It Matters

There are about 24,000 children in Florida’s privatized child welfare system and nearly 10% (2,338) are crossover or dually-served youth – meaning they’re served by both the juvenile justice and child welfare systems.

These youth are some of Florida’s most vulnerable children. Concerns exist that as community based care goes forward the number of lead agencies is diminishing while their service geographies expand significantly. This is counter to the original intent and vision of community based care.

Our Priorities

The goal of the juvenile justice system is to identify children early when on the wrong path, provide various levels of restitution, intervention and rehabilitative services and return them to the community with supports to avoid recidivism. Unfortunately, not every child in juvenile justice residential care has a safe and loving home to return to once they have been released or have completed their treatment plan.

Reforming community reentry requires the active involvement of the Department of Juvenile Justice rather than shifting the burden to the Department of Children and Families. DJJ should be charged – as it was in previous decades – with the responsibility to secure appropriate housing, on-going support and therapeutic services for justice-involved youth leaving detention and other secure residential placements. Florida’s child welfare system is not designed to focus on public safety and issues regarding recidivism. Shifting the burden of care leads to bad outcomes for children in both systems.

Florida’s dependency judges have high caseloads and there is limited specialized training for them. Most circuits in Florida do not have permanent dependency judges even though the cases handled are complicated and require a broad knowledge base to navigate successfully. Training and retention of dependency court judges is an area that has not received much attention to date.

The Guardian ad Litem (GAL) program in Florida represents the child in dependency court through a best interest model. The program has expanded significantly and provides volunteer GALs with support from attorneys for every dependent child. Recently, GAL was approved for Title IV E funding that provides additional assurances that the best interest of children are served with appropriate legal representation. With leadership provided by the GAL program statewide, advances have been made allowing children in out of home care to have a measure of normalcy similar to their peers. When needed, the dependency judge may appoint an attorney ad litem to any case they feel additional legal assistance will be helpful.

The debate between family-like settings being best for children and the call to close all group homes ignores the fact that a segment of the child welfare population doesn’t fit into a family setting placement. No one is advocating for bad group homes. Group homes must be provided funding to meet high standards of care inclusive of therapeutic, educational and mental health services and not only as awake adult supervision. Sibling groups can overwhelm traditional family settings accustomed to serving fewer children. Quality group care for siblings is appropriate for these children as well.

Quality standards should embody the conditions necessary to ensure children’s safety, rights, and health and a high level of competency in treatment planning and implementation. Best practices for group homes include: the adoption of quality standards, increased evidence-based best practices, family engagement, culturally competent practices, workforce development, and flexible funding strategies. Other important components of quality programs include aftercare, connecting families with resources, promotion of a positive peer culture, and providing the least restrictive level of care for each child’s specific needs.

Foster parents not being an active part of the total case plan, not having their needs met and burnout are all factors that contribute to their high turnover rate – 30% to 50%. The stipend provided to foster parents and relative caregivers, while improved recently, still requires foster homes to supplement it with their own money to afford the required child care, transportation, purchase new clothes and other items children need, and allow children to participate in the same activities as their peers.

Florida maintains around 4,000 foster homes. Although there’s been about a 40% increase in licensed foster homes, it doesn’t necessarily result in more foster home placement options. The increase appears to be linked to the statutory change that provided relative caregivers a higher monthly rate if they received a foster care license. In total the number of Florida foster placements options has remained stagnant over the last few years (with the exception of a drop during COVID). More needs to be done to support foster parents in providing quality care for children in the child welfare system. Models do exist that improve foster home recruitment and retention but they are not available in all circuits.