Don Gaetz ()
Florida Senate President Don Gaetz called for greater accountability for the state’s privatized child-welfare system, despite arguments by local community-based care agencies that Florida is one of the best states in the country for the treatment of abused and neglected children.
“If everything was working, we wouldn’t have 400 children slipping through the cracks of the system and dying,” Gaetz, R-Niceville, said on Friday. “The (community-based care agencies) will have to improve their operations and be more accountable, just like the state agency will have to.”
Gaetz’s remarks followed the rollout last week of a proposal by the Senate Children, Families and Elder Affairs Committee. The proposal would require the state Department of Children and Families to develop an “outcome-based accountability system” for child welfare and to clarify the financial controls for the community-based care lead agencies, known as CBCs.
The proposal follows a public outcry over a series of children’s deaths last year, with lawmakers examining the child-welfare system with an eye toward crafting reform legislation.
Last week, the House Healthy Families Subcommittee heard that 432 Florida children died of abuse and neglect in 2012, and that 40 percent of them were already involved with the Department of Children and Families.
But at Tuesday’s Senate panel meeting, the community-based care agencies pushed back strongly against the proposal to tighten financial controls, enumerating the levels of accountability they already provide.
They argued that Florida’s child-welfare system works so well that Georgia is considering adopting its own version of the privatized model. The agencies receive $769 million a year from the state—99 percent of their funding—to provide adoption, foster care and case-management services.
“Florida had the courage to do this and is showing that it’s been successful,” said Kurt Kelly, chief executive officer of the Florida Coalition for Children, which represents the community-based care agencies. “All the outcome measures are showing it’s been successful.”
According to Kelly’s group, Florida has one of the highest adoption rates in the country and is “one of the top five states that reduced the number of children in foster care over time and had a low number of kids in foster care.”
And in an Oct. 27 op-ed in the Bradenton Herald, Kelly wrote that the community-based care agencies “have grown from small start-ups to mature agencies responsible for thousands of lives, millions of state funds and a wide array of services. Each has succeeded by nurturing its own local ecosystem of foster parents, service providers and professional staff tailored to meet the unique needs of their community.”
During the committee meeting this week, Sen. Alan Hays, R-Umatilla, touted the work of the agencies, saying, “Florida went from worst to first, thanks in large part to the CBCs.” But Gaetz rejected the notion.
“I think anybody who is afraid their rice bowl is going to get chipped will point out the reasons why we need to keep everything the same,” he said. “We’re not talking about the competing interests of lobbying groups. We’re talking about children’s lives, and people who say it’s all fine and dandy just aren’t facing reality.”
The number of children in Florida’s foster-care system has dropped from roughly 30,000 to 20,000 since 2006, but many child-welfare experts credit not the state’s privatized community-based care model, but what is known as a federal Title IV-E waiver.
In 2006, Florida became the first state to be granted the waiver, which allows federal foster-care funds to be used for any child-welfare purpose, including prevention and intervention. Before that, the state could use IV-E funds only for services to children who had been removed from their homes already. So the waiver offered funding flexibility, enabling federal money to be used for services that shore up troubled families and keep children safely in their homes and out of foster care.
Christina Spudeas, executive director of the advocacy group Florida’s Children First, called the waiver “the biggest factor that’s contributed to the substantial decrease of kids in (foster) care.”
Spudeas also said increased adoption is a trend nationally, not just in Florida, producing a 20 percent drop in the number of children in foster care nationwide. She confirmed that Florida is one of the top 10 states for adoption, but pointed out that the other nine haven’t privatized.
And Florida’s Children First deputy director Robin Rosenberg added that 1,000 children a year age out of state foster care without finding a permanent family.
“How do you tell kids that have been stuck in care or bounced around in multiple group homes, changed schools numerous times, that they’re the top?” Rosenberg asked. “A number like that is cold comfort to the kids who have to live their lives in the system of care.”