Monday, January 17, 2022

Miracle in Pinellas County! Child abuse suddenly plummets by 50%! (Unless there’s some OTHER reason the sheriff suddenly found a way to stop taking away so many kids)

 

The rate at which children were torn from their homes in large Florida counties
where sheriff's offices are in charge of child abuse investigations.
  Note that even if Pinellas County has now cut removals in half,
it's still above the state average and well above Broward County.


Hey, remember when the Sheriff of Pinellas County, Florida, Bob Gualtieri, whose office is responsible for child abuse investigations in the county, insisted that his officers never, ever needlessly take children from their homes?  Remember how he said his officers followed a Florida Department of Children and Families framework for investigations “to a T”?   Remember how he insisted on this even though Pinellas tears apart families at one of the highest rates in Florida, even when rates of child poverty are factored in? 

Less than two months ago, he said this to the Florida news site Florida Politics 

“We will always make the decision that is in the best interest of the children, regardless of what others may want, and that includes removing them from harmful situations when required. All of our removal decisions are reviewed by a judge and routinely upheld. We will continue to act to protect vulnerable children.” 

Later, Gualtieri bragged about refusing requests from the former “lead agency” running foster care in the county, Eckerd Connects, to please stop taking so many kids.  And he did all this knowing that Eckerd was placing the children in situations so horrible that Gualtieri himself was launching a criminal investigation. 


But then, the miracle:  As Florida Politics reports, according to a press release from the Florida Department of Children and Families, thanks to the brilliant leadership of the Florida Department of Children and Families (bet you didn’t see that coming) in just two months they’ve cut the number of children taken from their families in Pinellas and neighboring Pasco County by 50%!
 

There are two possible explanations for this: Either all of a sudden, child abuse in these counties declined by half  -- or, month-after-month year-after-year until now, the Sheriffs tore apart families needlessly, Eckerd was complicit and DCF turned a blind eye. 

If the data are correct, it is a small, encouraging first step - though it would still mean Pinellas County is tearing apart families at a rate above the state average, even when rates of child poverty are factored in.  

DCF Secretary Shevaun Harris deserves credit for being the first person in that job since George Sheldon to at least have the courage to admit that wrongful removal is a problem and take some steps to deal with it.  (We’ll see if she still has that kind of courage when the Miami Herald and the Tampa Bay Times come after her – as they will the next time there’s a high-profile death of a child “known to the system” in these counties.) 

But it’s not nearly enough.  The DCF press release is not a testament to sudden success but to horrifying long-term failure – by Eckerd Connects, by the sheriffs and by DCF itself. 

Think of what that press release really means: Hundreds, perhaps thousands of children needlessly traumatized, possibly for life, after being taken from everyone they know and love due to Gualtieri’s knee-jerk take-the-child-and-run approach and the failure of others in the system to stop it.  Many of those children were taken from homes that were safe or could have been made safe only to be abused in foster care.  Others were placed in conditions so horrible that, as noted above, Gualtieri himself has launched a criminal investigation. 

Gualtieri may claim that it was only all of a sudden that other agencies gave him alternatives to taking away all those children.  The press release seems to suggest as much – thanks to the magnificent leadership of DCF, of course.   But Gualtieri is also the one who demands no excuses from others.  As he put it when talking about Eckerd: “You don’t whine about it. … You figure out a way to make it happen." So why didn’t he take the initiative and build the necessary infrastructure of prevention to “make it happen”?  Why didn’t he show the same leadership as his counterpart in  Broward County, where the sheriff understood the problem and did something about it.  Broward tears apart significantly fewer children than Pinellas or Pasco. 

As for DCF, it effectively admits that poverty was confused with neglect in the part of the press release in which it brags that it 

Launched a direct referral process to Hope Florida – A Pathway to Prosperity and Care Navigation for the Sheriff’s Offices, providing assistance to 272 families who faced economic barriers in open child dependency cases. 

There should be no such thing as “economic barriers in … child dependency cases” because poverty is not neglect.  And again, why did Gualtieri and his counterpart in Pasco County wait for DCF – why didn’t they do this themselves? 

A failure of the judiciary 

The press release also illustrates the failure of the Florida judiciary.  Recall how Gualtieri justified his take-the-child-and-run approach by saying what bad family policing agencies always say: 

All of our removal decisions are reviewed by a judge and routinely upheld. 


Yet now we know that, at least half the time, those decisions almost certainly were wrong.  This further illustrates the need for Florida judges to start wielding gavels instead of rubber stamps – and it illustrates the urgent need for Florida to institute the model of high-quality family defense that has allowed other communities to dramatically reduce needless foster care with no compromise of safety.
 

A failure of journalism 

And finally, there is another factor: journalistic malpractice by the most powerful media organization in the region, the Tampa Bay Times. 

Imagine how much better off hundreds of children would be now had the Times news side not ignored or downplayed the issue of wrongful removal.  How many children would have been spared the hideous conditions of Eckerd “care” had the Times editorial board, under former Editorial Page Editor Tim Nickens, crusaded to reduce entries into foster care instead of to increase them?  (By the way, Nickens also cited the fact that the judges kept rubber-stamping removals as some kind of proof they were justified.) 

And again, will DCF Secretary Harris have the guts to stand up to the Times, and the Miami Herald, when they come after her?

Thursday, December 23, 2021

It’s a Christmas miracle! Tampa Bay Times discovers wrongful removal

 

Anybody see any ghosts around here?

I don’t know how it happened.  Maybe three ghosts paid a recent visit to some reporters and editors one night.  But whatever the reason, after years of marching in lockstep with the Miami Herald – ignoring wrongful removal and sometimes fomenting foster-care panic -- the Tampa Bay Times has discovered that maybe all those children don’t need to be in foster care after all! 

Of course, the discovery comes way too late for all the children whose lives were destroyed by needless foster care – and the story fails to acknowledge the Times’ own role in making the Tampa Bay area such an outlier.  But it’s a start. 

● The story calls out the hypocrisy of Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri. She sheriff has launched a criminal investigation of the former “lead agency” overseeing foster care in the region, Eckerd Connects, because of appalling conditions in foster care.  But all the while, Gualtieri’s office continues to shovel kids into those very conditions by tearing apart families at one of the highest rates in the state.  Where have I heard that before? 

● There’s a story, albeit buried toward the end, about children torn from their mother just because the mother was a victim of domestic violence. Where have I heard that before? 

● And, again at the very end, there’s a good discussion of how the Broward County Sheriff’s office reformed to keep children safe while taking proportionately far fewer than Pinellas and Hillsborough.  Broward used to be an outlier, too, taking many children needlessly. But then, according to the story, 

In an unusual step, then-Broward Sheriff Scott Israel hired former Department of Children and Families deputy regional director Kim Gorsuch to run his child protective division. In Pinellas and Hillsborough, that position is handled by officers at the rank of major or captain. 

Gorsuch found that investigators were too often equating poverty with neglect, they didn’t understand addiction and might remove a child because one household member was using drugs even when another relative in the home could care for the child. 

She also found that Black children were disproportionately being removed from two high-poverty ZIP codes. 

When investigators told her they were trying to keep children safe, she posed a simple question: Are Broward kids really more unsafe than kids in the rest of Florida? 

The limits of miracles 

Even miracles have their limits, though.  

High up in the story, Robin Rosenberg of Florida Children First – a group which, itself, has long been a big part of the problem, is allowed to frame the issue as, in essence: Poverty makes those people bad parents who neglect their kids.  She tells us, in effect: Well yes, the kids could remain home but only with lots of “social services” and “monitoring” – in other words, constant, onerous surveillance and pointless hoops to jump through.  Only much farther down, in that section about Broward County, do we learn that poverty itself often is confused with neglect, and that is mentioned only in passing. 

Then Rosenberg tells us the high rate of removal “is particularly frustrating in a region where millions are spent on child abuse prevention programs.” Because her mindset  – that the parents may not be evil but they sure are sick, sick, sick! – runs so deep, it apparently never occurs to Rosenberg (or the Times) that the problem might be that a lot of prevention money goes to the wrong places: largely help that makes the helpers feel good, such as “counseling” and “parent education,” instead of concrete help to deal with poverty. 

And while Gualtieri blames “inadequate social services,” for why his office supposedly has to tear apart families at one of the highest rates in the state, he is not asked why he doesn’t use some of his own budget to provide those services.  As we pointed out in a previous post,  Gualtieri himself said: 

“You don’t whine about it. … You figure out a way to make it happen."

 So why can’t the Pinellas County Sheriff’s office take some of its budget and use it for emergency cash assistance, and rent subsidies, and housing repairs, and childcare subsidies.  Or at least follow the example of this police officer in Kansas City, Missouri. 

Across the bay in Hillsborough County, their sheriff’s office blames high rates of removal on substance use.  But only much farther down, again in that short section about Broward County, is there a hint that the knee-jerk response to substance use among poor people should not be to traumatize their children with needless foster care.  (That is almost never the knee-jerk response to substance use among rich people). 

We also don’t know if this story signals real change at the Tampa Bay Times – or if it’s more like: Oh alright, we’ll cover this angle once and then go back to business as usual. 

We know only that it’s a start.  And that it’s still not too late for three ghosts to drop in on some journalists at the Miami Herald.  But, come to think of it, maybe that wouldn't be such a good idea. Knowing the Herald, they'd probably just write an editorial urging DCF to take away Tiny Tim because the Cratchits are so poor.

Friday, December 17, 2021

NCCPR in Florida Today on what the Miami Herald’s foster-care panic is doing to children

Think of it as the Cliffs Notes version.

From the column:

Year after year, the number of deaths of children “known to the system” remains constant. Some years it goes up a little, some years it goes down a little. 

So all those children needlessly separated; all those taken from homes that were safe or could have been made safe with the right kinds of help only to be abused in foster care, suffered for nothing. They were victims of a “foster-care panic” — a sharp, sudden increase in removals of children from their homes that often follows high-profile child abuse deaths — especially when that coverage goes out of its way to scapegoat family preservation. 

Read the full column here.

Wednesday, November 17, 2021

You get what you pay for: How Florida shifted funding priorities to foster care



Child welfare’s foremost data nerd has weighed in on the mess in central Florida child welfare caused by – well caused by a lot of things, including the dreadful performance of Eckerd Connects.  Eckerd is the “lead agency” in the region (though not for long) under Florida’s largely privatized system of family policing.  (Florida calls it a “Community-Based Care” (CBC) system of “child welfare,” but both those terms are euphemisms.) 

We wrote a detailed blog post about what went wrong last week.  Now there is a much more detailed post from Prof. Robert Latham, associate director of the University of Miami School of Law Children and Youth Law Clinic. He also has a degree in computer science and a talent for data visualization.  That makes him unafraid to go as deep into the weeds as necessary to determine whether a claim is true. 

In his most recent blog post, he documents, in chart after chart, why the claim by Eckerd that its failures are due to the agency not getting enough money is b.s.  As the headline for the post puts it “CBC Funding Doesn’t Make Children Live in Offices.” 

But there are some other significant observations.  Much as we did last week, Latham notes that 

None of the problems are new, and every player in the saga had some hand in creating the mess. The [Pinellas County] sheriff, who is now saying Eckerd could be criminally liable, is the child protective investigator in Pinellas county and has been removing children (at higher than statewide average rates) and handing them to Eckerd for years despite all the known problems. 

But he also explains how the Florida Legislature, the current administration of Gov. Ron DeSantis and the administration of former Governor Rick Scott skewed financial incentives for the “CBCs” toward holding more children in foster care and against trying to keep families together. 

In other words, in addition to all the other ways Florida government caved-in to the Miami Herald and reporter Carol Marbin Miller’s crusade to tear apart more families, the governors and the Legislature also rewarded agencies like Eckerd for holding children in foster care and penalized them for working to keep them safely at home. 

How the incentives work 


In 2010, back when Charlie Crist was still governor and the Florida Department of Children and Families had a visionary leader in George Sheldon, a small proportion of the complex formula for allocating funds to agencies such as Eckerd rewarded them if they reduced the number of children they trapped in foster care.  But by 2015, the year after Miller’s Innocents Lost series started a foster-care panic, that was gone.  Not only that, the proportion of the formula based on the number of children held in foster care doubled – from 30% of the formula to 60%.  It declined to 55% in 2018 – but it’s still, by far, the largest single driver of how much money Eckerd and its counterparts get.
 

That isn’t even the worst of it.  The formula for how much these agencies get is based in part on what the other CBCs are doing – apparently, it’s a little like grading on a curve.  But in this case, the better you do the worse the grade. 

Writes Latham: 

[I]f an agency holds its numbers steady while every other CBC increases theirs, that agency will lose money in the formula. There is no incentive to be the first agency to lower the numbers … There is, however, an incentive to be the first to raise your numbers in a given category and capture a higher proportion before the other agencies catch up. This could be a good or bad thing depending on the category and the cost of care for that group. [Emphasis in original] 

In other words, if, say, a county sheriff is tearing apart families needlessly, a lead agency has no financial incentive to complain about it.  And they have no incentive to get children home as quickly and safely as possible.  In fact, if they do the right thing before anyone else, it’s great for the kids, but bad for the agency’s bottom line. 

Double standards and bad incentives 

Any discussion of financial incentives is plagued with the same sorts of double standards that afflict any discussion in child welfare: tearing apart families is automatically considered the good, “safe” option, while avoiding the horrific trauma needless removal inflicts on children, and avoiding the high risk of abuse in foster care itself, is somehow deemed risky. 

So you may be sure that were the legislature ever to restore even a slight incentive not to hold children needlessly in foster care, the Herald or the Tampa Bay Times would find the first available horror story and blame it on a supposedly dangerous incentive to return children home. 

Of course, neither newspaper has expressed any concern about the current incentive to
prolong foster care, with all of the well-documented emotional harm this inflicts on children (think Mexican Border because it’s the same kind of harm), the well-documented rotten outcomes this causes in later life,  the well-documented high rate of abuse in foster care – and, of course, the well-documented harm to children who fall into the clutches of outfits such as Eckerd.
 

There are also huge incentives to prolong foster care beyond the financial: No caseworker wants to be on the front page of the Herald or the Tampa Bay Times, accused of “allowing” a child to die.  They need have no fear of being on the front page for tearing apart families needlessly.  The same dynamic applies to judges and agency administrators. 

The bad financial incentives compound all that. Changing them would be a very small step toward redressing the imbalance and allowing the system to handle each case on its merits. 

That this can be done in Florida is illustrated by what happened when Sheldon and before him Bob Butterworth ran DCF.  During their tenure a waiver from federal funding rules allowed more money to be used to keep families together.  Entries into foster care declined and independent monitors found no compromise of child safety. 

Then the Miami Herald came along and blew the whole thing up. 

Everything from the series of outstanding stories from the USA Today Florida Network, and the accounts of youth left to the tender mercies of Eckerd make clear the consequences.

Tuesday, November 9, 2021

A Florida county sheriff says a private agency warehoused children in conditions so horrible he’s launching a criminal investigation. But guess who took away the kids in the first place.

 Hint: It’s the county that tears apart families at one of the highest rates in the state, and yet has one of the worst records in the state on a key measure of child safety.

 


Bob Gualtieri, the sheriff of Pinellas County, Florida (metropolitan St. Petersburg) is really upset.  It seems he’s noticed something we’ve been pointing out on our Florida blog for years:  Eckerd Connects, the longtime “lead agency” responsible for what happens to foster children after they’re torn from their homes in Pinellas and neighboring Pasco and Hillsborough Counties, has been doing a terrible job. (Not for much longer, though.  Either the state Department of Children and Families fired Eckerd or Eckerd quit, depending on who is telling the story.) 

But, back to the sheriff, who says Eckerd did such a lousy job that he's launching a criminal investigation: 

“The conditions in which these children have been living at Eckerd’s offices, frankly, is disgusting and deplorable," Gualtieri said. And he’s not about to accept any excuses either!  “You don’t whine about it,” he says. “You fix it and if you can’t do it you go to the state and you say, ‘hey look, this isn’t working and here’s why,’ … But you still do your job, and you don’t expose kids to danger while you’re trying to fix it. You figure out a way to make it happen." 


You tell ‘em, Sheriff! But there’s just one problem.  Bad as Eckerd is – and yes, they are awful, and yes there’s no excuse for it – the single biggest source of the problem in Pinellas County is – the office of the Pinellas County Sheriff.  Gualtieri runs what may be the most extreme, most fanatical family destruction agency in Florida.

It’s Sheriff Gualtieri and his deputies who are, in effect, dumping all those Pinellas County children onto Eckerd’s doorstep in the first place.  No, it’s not because they want to hurt kids.  On the contrary, I’m sure they sincerely believe they’re helping.  But they can’t break out of the take-the-child-and-run mentality that plagues Florida child welfare, especially in their part of the state. 

When the Sheriff runs child protective services 

In most parts of Florida, the initial decision to tear a child from everyone s/he knows and loves is made by workers for the state Department of Children and Families.  But in a handful of counties, sheriff’s offices have that job.  Those counties tend to be concentrated in the Tampa Bay area, including Pinellas, Pasco, Hillsborough and Manatee. 

The people who pushed the change, about 20 years ago were hoping for just this result – they wanted sheriffs to tear apart more families, and the assumption was that hard-nosed cops would be even more fanatical about it than caseworkers. 

It looks like they were at least partly right.   Some counties where DCF still runs initial investigations take away appallingly large numbers of children.  Conversely, in Broward County, the Sheriff’s office has shown commendable restraint, taking proportionately fewer children than most counties where DCF still is in charge.  But in the other counties where sheriffs are in charge, the take-the-child-and-run crowd has gotten what it wanted – especially in Pinellas. 

Compare Pinellas to other large counties where sheriff’s deputies take away children – and note that all of these figures factor in rates of child poverty in each county: 

A child in Pinellas County is 33 percent more likely to be taken from her or his parents than a child in neighboring Pasco County.  That Pinellas County child is 60 percent more likely to be taken than a child in Manatee County, twice as likely to be taken as a child in Hillsborough County, nearly two-and-a-half times more likely to be taken away than the state average – and more than four times more likely to be taken away than a child in Broward County which, again, is another place where the sheriff’s office does the taking. 

In fact, were Pinellas County, Florida, a state, its rate of removal would be the seventh highest in the entire nation.

 

NCCPR calculates rates of removal by comparing Florida DCF data for entries into care for the year ending Sept. 30, 2021 (the most recent time period available) to a Census Bureau estimate of the number of children living in poverty in each county.  We believe this approach is fairer than simply comparing entries to the total child population, But, for the record: If you divide entries by total child population the relative position of these counties remains the same – Pinellas still is the most extreme outlier, and the rate of removal in Broward still is lowest.

Child removal ≠ child safety 

Ah, but if we’re taking away all those kids, we must be making them safer, the sheriff might say,  since the mantra in Florida for decades, with only a brief exception, has been to falsely equate child removal with child safety.  I can imagine Sheriff Gualtieri responding to these figures by taking perverse pride in how his officers supposedly “err on the side of the child” and put child safety ahead of family preservation. 

This, of course, ignores the enormous trauma to children caused by needless removal – even when the placements are good.  Recall what happened at the Mexican border and you get the idea.  How is that “erring on the side of child”?  The trauma is, of course, compounded when, according to the very people taking away the children, the placements are “disgusting and deplorable.”  How is that erring on the side of the child? 

But also, the more you overload systems with false reports trivial cases and needless foster care, the less likely you are to have time to find the relatively few children in real danger.  Instead of erring on the side of the child, the Sheriff’s approach makes all Pinellas County children less safe. 

Check out the data. 

The standard measure of child safety is this: Of all the children caseworkers or sheriff’s deputies deem to have been abused or neglected, what percent are abused or neglected again in the next 12 months? 

Here are the most recent available results for those same counties: 

Broward:                      5.28%

State average:             6.79%

Manatee:                      6.51%

Hillsborough:                7.07%

Pasco:                          7.27%

Pinellas:                   10.37% 

In fact, there are only six counties in the entire state, all much smaller than Pinellas, that do worse.  And note that the county with the lowest rate of removal, Broward, had the best safety record.  Bottom line: Pinellas County Sheriff’s deputies are taking away far too many children needlessly and missing more cases of real abuse and neglect than counties that show more restraint.  How is that erring on the side of the child? 

“As bad or worse” 

Still another measure of what happens to children can be found in Sherriff Gualtieri’s own statement.  He said that, under the care and supervision of Eckerd, “The conditions are as bad or worse than the living conditions from which the children were removed.” 

Which begs the question: If you know they’re going to be as bad or worse off, why are you taking them away in the first place? 

The statement about “as bad or worse” is misleading in one way, though: It plays to public stereotypes about families caught in the system.  It conjures up images of horror story cases that are very serious, very real, and very, very rare.  Far more common are cases in which family poverty is confused with neglect. 

Of course, Sheriff Gualtieri might reply: Well sure, a lot of times the problem is housing, but the housing was dangerous so what do you expect us to do about it?  We’re not a housing agency.  Or: We can’t very well provide childcare subsidies so children aren’t taken on “lack of supervision” charges, can we? 

Why not?  As the Sheriff himself put it: 

“You don’t whine about it. … You figure out a way to make it happen."

 So why can’t the Pinellas County Sheriff’s office take some of its budget and use it for emergency cash assistance, and rent subsidies, and housing repairs, and childcare subsidies.  Or at least follow the example of this police officer in Kansas City, Missouri. 

And where the issue is substance use that genuinely endangers children, how about using some of that budget to set up innovative home-based drug treatment programs – again, because it’s better for the children. 

The extent of wrongful removal 

We know how bad the problem of wrongful removal is nationally thanks to the mass of studies showing that, in typical cases, children left in their own homes do better even than comparably-maltreated children placed in foster care.  We know how bad it is in Florida thanks to excellent stories like this from USA Today Network Florida reporters. 

And we know how bad it is in the counties where Eckerd has been the lead agency thanks to the report of a “peer review team” DCF itself sent to Hillsborough County (metropolitan Tampa) in 2018. As we wrote at the time: 

The peer review found that workers in Hillsborough County are so terrified of having one of their cases land them on the front page after a tragedy that they were illegally taking large numbers of children needlessly. According to the report: 

Professionals in the system of care are often unnecessarily risk adverse due to the fear of child fatalities and media consequences. … [E]xtreme caution and risk aversion responses do not guarantee that tragic results will be avoided, and can cause unnecessary trauma to children. 

Indeed, as WFLA-TV documented in this tragic case, it can cause a child to die in foster care after being taken from a mother because that mother is poor. 

What “risk averse” really means is that child welfare investigators, supervisors and officials are increasing the risk to children in order to decrease the risk to themselves. 

The report found that investigators in Hillsborough County rush to remove children “without sufficient exploration, consideration, or conversation around reasonable efforts to prevent removal …” 


Yes, but that’s Hillsborough, not Pinellas.  True.  But as noted earlier the rate of removal in Pinellas is double the rate in Hillsborough.  So either Pinellas County Florida is a cesspool of depravity and parents in, say, St. Petersburg really are twice as likely to abuse their children as parents in Tampa and four times as likely to abuse their children as parents in Fort Lauderdale – or Pinellas County is taking away a whole lot of children who could have remained safely in their own homes.
 

It’s reasonable to bet it’s the latter, especially since Pinellas is the home county of the Tampa Bay Times, which has done everything it can to encourage the rush to tear apart families. 

Don’t pass the buck to the courts 

Typically, when confronted with high rates of removal, agencies will pass the buck to the courts.  We don’t take children, they say, the courts have to approve everything we do.  Somehow, they always manage to say this with a straight face. 

In fact, in Florida, as in every state, the child protective services agency, in this case, the sheriff’s office, has the power to remove children on the spot, entirely on their own authority.  The family has to then fight to get them back.  And it’s hardly a fair fight.  Since the families are almost always are poor, they almost always have to rely on an overwhelmed public defender who may have met them for the first time in a hallway five minutes before the hearing.  

Presiding is a judge who knows that if he sends the child home and something goes wrong his career is over (especially in Pinellas County where he’d have to face the wrath of the Tampa Bay Times with its fanatical devotion to tearing apart families).  Leave the children to the tender mercies of Eckerd Connects and the children may suffer terribly, but the judge is safe. 

Over in Louisiana, a judge was commendably honest about this.  In a decision ordering the return home of a child he never should have ordered taken away, the judge wrote: 

“The [Children’s] Code has created a system in which a judge must make a decision about probable cause based on factual and medical evidence without the benefit of a hearing, review of evidence, or any of the fact-finding tools which are obligatory in every other proceeding under the Anglo-American legal system ... This is a system which borders on a sham.” 

And, of course, arguing that judges said it was OK still doesn’t explain why Pinellas deputies believe they need to bring these cases in the first place at a vastly higher rate than their fellow deputies in neighboring counties. 

None of this should let Eckerd off the hook 

The fact that Sheriff Gualtieri and his counterparts in Pasco and Hillsborough Counties kept dumping kids on Eckerd’s doorstep doesn’t mean Eckerd had to tolerate it.  Had they spoken out loudly and clearly about wrongful removal right from the beginning, they could have curbed it.  As the “lead agency” for the region, Eckerd had the most influence in the system. Eckerd could have educated deputies about the harm of needless removal and pressed Gualtieri and his counterparts not to take so many children needlessly. They also could have pressed the courts to return children they thought the sheriff’s deputies had removed needlessly. 

Instead, from all appearances, they welcomed all those removals for years.  

We predicted Eckerd would fail as soon as they brought in as its director of community-based care Chris Card, who has his own demonstrated devotion to the take-the-child-and-run approach to child welfare.  And sure enough, he immediately lived down to his reputation.  

What the Sheriff got right 

On two points, Sheriff Gualtieri is right.  It would be wrong to target low-level Eckerd employees and make them scapegoats; to his credit he has pledged not to do this.  And there should be an investigation of Eckerd.  

But, good intentions notwithstanding, Sheriff Gualtieri shouldn’t be the one doing it.

Thursday, March 18, 2021

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

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

UPDATE, OCT. 15, 2021: USA Today has an update here.


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.

Monday, January 18, 2021

Florida journalism begins to face up to foster-care panic; Florida lawmaklers do not.

USA Today Network stories also reveal how the Florida Department of Children and Families effectively has become a spouse abuser’s best friend. 

           

Confronted with the fact that his agency overlooked
horriffic abuse in foster care and routinely tears children
from the arms of battered mothers, Florida DCF Secretary
Chad Poppell offered, at best, a mea minima culpa.


                In 2014, bad journalism set off a foster-care panic in Florida.  A Miami Herald series, falsely scapegoated family preservation for child abuse deaths.  In fact, efforts to keep families together, led by two leaders of the state child welfare agency, Bob Butterworth and the late George Sheldon, had made children safer.

             The Florida Legislature responded predictably. It passed a bunch of laws encouraging even more needless removal of children from their homes, escalating the panic.

             In 2020, good journalism exposed the harm done to children by the Herald’s bad journalism.  USA Today Network Florida reporters demonstrated how the foster-care panic overloaded the system, prompting the Florida Department of Children and Families (DCF) and the assortment of privatized “lead agencies” that together mismanage Florida child welfare to turn a blind eye (to an even greater degree than before) to horrific abuse inflicted on children in foster care.

             Then the reporters published a series of stories about children needlessly torn from their mothers and consigned to the chaos of that same horrific system because the mothers were victims of domestic violence.

             Last week, some Florida legislators responded predictably – accepting at face value meaningless assurances from the current “leader” of Florida DCF, Chad Poppell.

So for starters, let’s review what Poppell and the legislature – as well as the Herald and its ally in pushing Florida to relentlessly tear apart families, the Tampa Bay Times – want swept under the rug.

The USA Today Network journalists found that the system

 …sent nearly 170 children to live in foster homes where the state had some evidence that abuse occurred. In 2016, two preschool girls said their Sarasota County foster father molested them. The state sent him 13 more children, stopping only when a third toddler reported that the 64-year-old had forced her to put his penis in her mouth. …

The number of children under 10 sent to live in group homes doubled between 2013 and 2017, adding to the cost of care and the danger to children. Some were sent to places such as the Mount Dora-based National Deaf Academy even after a whistleblower lawsuit was filed in Lake County claiming that staff had held children down, punched them in the stomach, spat on them and denied them medical care. …

 As caseloads rose, child welfare workers skipped home visits and parent training sessions because they could not keep up with required safety checks. They fabricated logs to make it appear as if the sessions took place. When caseworkers lied and omitted information from their reports, children got hurt, according to lawsuits and DCF inspector general reports. One IG report told of a child who was sexually assaulted after an investigations supervisor falsely claimed a hotline call had been successfully investigated and provisions had been made for the safety of the children involved.

 


At a legislative committee meeting on Jan. 12, Poppell offered up what can best be called a mea minima culpa

 “I won’t belabor the point, the quality of the work was poor,  We did a bad job,” he said, adding “DCF shouldn’t be finding out about these things in the newspaper.”

 But he neglected to mention that he had done everything he could to prevent his own agency, or anyone else, from finding out.  As the USA Today story notes:

DCF and the nonprofit agencies in charge of foster care repeatedly tried to prevent USA TODAY from obtaining information about foster parents and the allegations against them. They would not provide a list of parent names and demanded $50,000 for search and copy fees for disciplinary records. In reaction to one USA TODAY records request, DCF officials pressed legislators to pass a law making foster parent names secret from the public – an effort that ultimately failed.

Taking children from battered mothers

As I’ll discuss in more detail below, the legislative committee barely touched the issue of abuse in foster care.  And when it comes to the issue of the harm done to children taken from battered mothers, they don’t seem to have said a word. 

So let’s review what the journalists found.  Here’s how one of the stories begins: 

Her memory of the midnight attack was muddled, but her battered body bore the story. 

Purple bruises peppered her arms, legs and chest. Blood dried on her busted lip. Dark, swollen skin circled her bloodshot right eye. Hospital scans confirmed her ex-boyfriend’s attack had inflicted internal trauma too. 

Now, hours later, he was in jail and Leah Gunion was home again. Concussion-weary and tender, she tucked her toddler back into bed and sat down to nurse her infant son. An 8 a.m. knock at the door disrupted her first moment of peace. 

A woman waited at the threshold. Her polo shirt bore the insignia of the Florida Department of Children and Families. Thinking she was there to help, Leah let her in. 

For the next six weeks, Leah would battle the state for custody of her children, though DCF investigators never suggested that she injured her kids. They didn’t accuse her of using drugs or failing to provide for her boys’ basic needs. 

But she had lost consciousness from being beaten and strangled, briefly leaving her children unsupervised. They ordered Leah to never be alone with her children, or risk losing them. 

Ultimately her children were indeed taken away.  It happened right after a domestic violence counselor assured the mother it wouldn’t: 

 “She was very afraid that day of the department,” [the counselor] recalled. “And I stood right here in this building and said, ‘You’ve done everything right. Don’t worry about the department. They’re not going to take your kids.’” 

Because a police officer with a bodycam was there to provide backup, we can see what happened next:

 

Does Poppell know the research?

             Poppell tried to dismiss the cases as isolated while at the same time justifying tearing children from the arms of battered mothers on grounds that the children had been emotionally abused.          


But research shows that while witnessing domestic violence can harm children, emotionally, taking children from nonoffending parents harms those children far more.  One expert called it “tantamount to pouring salt into an open wound.”  That’s why in one state, New York, as a result of a class-action lawsuit, the practice is illegal.  (NCCPR’s vice president was co-counsel for plaintiffs in that lawsuit.)  In Florida, in contrast, DCF’s approach can be summed up as: please pass the salt. 

            As the Daytona Beach News-Journal wrote in an editorial. Poppell ... 

...should be aware of the national research showing how badly children suffer when they are separated from their parents  – and be wholly committed to ensuring that doesn’t happen to parents who never abused or neglected their children. 

            One reason the emotional trauma is so great in these situations: Children assume they must have done something terribly wrong and now they are being punished.  The Florida stories illustrate just that.  Leah Gunion’s children ultimately were returned, but ... 

Her toddler, whom DCF and police had picked up from day care, asked what he’d done wrong. “He thinks he was arrested,” Leah said, something she’d previously told him happens only to bad boys. 

            As for the claim that such cases are isolated, here’s what the USA Today Network reporters found: 

[I]n defiance of widely accepted best practices, Florida aggressively removes children from parents – most of them mothers – who have been battered by an intimate partner, a USA TODAY investigation found. … While other states have moved away from that approach, DCF cited domestic violence as the reason it removed more than 3,500 children from biological parents in 2018, an increase of nearly 1,400 from 2013. It is the primary reason for 25% of removals this year. … 

USA TODAY identified 22 domestic violence victims who were willing to share their stories and provide case documents that normally are hidden from public view. … Taken together, their experiences reveal a system stacked against women who are abused. Caseworkers and judges treat them like criminals on probation, even when their children have not been physically harmed, and impose a level of scrutiny that many parents could not pass. Any failing can be used against them to remove their children or delay reunification. 

Perhaps worst of all, Florida DCF effectively has become a spouse abuser’s best friend: 

Worried their children could be taken again, eight mothers say they’re now afraid to call 911 if they’re in danger. Four mothers told USA TODAY they believe their children were abused or medically neglected in a foster home. 

“The thing I regret most is that I ever called 911,” said a Martin County mother of two whose sons spent eight months in foster care after she reported to police that her boyfriend hit her and threatened her with a gun. “But I could also have been killed that night. Which one do you pick?”

 

The Florida Legislature responds – NOT! 

On Jan. 12, Poppell spoke at a meeting of the Florida Senate Committee on Children, Families and Elder Affairs.  He admitted that DCF had wrongly dismissed a large proportion of the allegations of sexual abuse in foster care – now that the journalists had overcome DCF’s own efforts to hide the problem.  He promised the agency will look more carefully in the future. 

But he implied that the official figure of 92 children with such allegations in fiscal year 2020 is accurate.  In fact, study after study shows that there is abuse in one-quarter to one-third of family foster homes, and the rate of abuse in group homes and institutions is even worse. 


Having just admitted that his investigations of abuse in foster care are sloppy and miss a lot of such abuse, Poppell then went on to claim that abuse in foster care had declined since 2007.  I trust the problem with that claim is obvious. 

As for the foster-care panic, Poppell claimed, of course, that all those children were taken to keep them safe.  But, as always happens with foster-care panics, it backfired.  Independent monitors found that the one time child safety really improved in Florida was when Butterworth and Sheldon were running DCF and doing more to keep families together. 

By overloading the system, the foster-care panic didn’t just make foster care less safe, it also made it harder for caseworkers to find the relatively few children in real danger. 

But safety wasn’t the real reason for taking away all those children.  That was made clear by Poppell himself – inadvertently – when he pointed out that the number of children torn from their families has returned to about where it was before the panic.  

But why? If all those children were so unsafe they needed to be taken away in 2014, why not now? 

      There are two possible explanations for the rise and fall in entries into Florida foster care: 

1.              1. By amazing coincidence, child abuse in Florida spiked at precisely the same moment the Herald was publishing its stories, and then it magically declined again. 

2.              2. Thousands of children were needlessly torn from everyone they know and love, consigned to the chaos of foster care, suffered emotional trauma akin to that suffered by children torn from their families at the Mexican border and, in some cases were horribly abused in foster care itself – all so Florida DCF could appease the Miami Herald and the Tampa Bay Times.

             So, which is more likely? 

1,280 “great things” per child? 

Speaking of unlikely, Poppell also declared that “a million great things happen in this system every day.” 

I did the math.  On average, 781 children come to the attention of DCF every day – that’s the number of children who are investigated as alleged victims of child abuse and neglect.  So if Poppell is right, his agency is so magnificent that it does an average of 1,280 great things for each one of those children!  Kinda makes you wonder why the outcomes for children who go through the system are so rotten, doesn’t it? 

And yet, instead of holding Poppell to account for any of this, his token initiatives about abuse in foster care reportedly were “well-received.” Another news account said “For the most part, the Senate committee members appeared pleased with Poppell’s responses.” 

Of course they were.  Poppell simply ignored the problem at the root of all the others – taking away too many children.  That’s the problem for which the legislature is complicit. 

The chair of the committee State Sen. Lauren Book had earlier written that “The USA Today investigative series will serve as a blueprint for me to follow in examining these issues.”  

But if she, or any other committee member, so much as uttered a word at the hearing about what was being done to the children of battered women, no news account mentioned it. 

So if you’re really going to use those stories as your guide, Sen. Book,  

● Will you introduce legislation to make it illegal to tear a child from the arms of mothers whose only crime is to, themselves, be the victims of domestic violence? 

● Will you demand that DCF stop taking away so many families needlessly, often when family poverty is confused with neglect? 

● Will you demand that DCF return to the reforms initiated under Butterworth and Sheldon, reforms shown by independent monitors to make children safer? 

● Will you demand that Florida create a program of high-quality interdisciplinary family representation like the one in New York City that has spared so many children the trauma of prolonged needless foster care, with no compromise of safety? 

● Will you at least demand that DCF follow this sound advice from the News-Journal and start 

...[examining] a random sample of child-abuse investigations that cite domestic violence as a leading cause and assigning an experienced team (preferably made up of people who don’t currently work for DCF) to review them. It should also look into allegations that assigned blame to victims of domestic violence and looked for any reason to take their children into foster care.

          And one more thing: Will you demand that Florida child welfare do what you say you are going to do and use the USA Today series as a blueprint – instead of taking its cues from the Miami Herald?