State finds problems in foster system
Review: Many abuse complaints downplayed
Suzanne Hirt USA TODAY Saturday, October 16, 2021
The calls to Florida’s abuse hotline accused foster caregivers of striking children with their hands, belts and household objects; denying them medical care; sending them to school dirty, hungry and dressed in ill-fitting clothes.
Yet the Department of Children and Families said the allegations–many of them from teachers, health care professionals and day care workers–did not meet its definition of serious harm. DCF classified them as potential license violations that might prompt an administrative review rather than a full-fledged investigation.
After a USA TODAY investigation in March brought to light more than 4,000 records detailing such complaints that had been kept secret from the public, DCF conducted an internal review of more than 1,100 of the calls.
The review’s findings: Only 19% of the accusations were inaccurate. Twice that number were deemed accurate. An additional 21% were partially accurate.
Few accused caregivers faced repercussions: Just 1% had their foster license revoked.
DCF presented results of the review to stakeholders in July as part of a quarterly performance update. The department ignored USA TODAY’s public records request for the presentation for almost two months until an attorney for the newspaper demanded fulfillment.
As part of the presentation, DCF unveiled policy changes to address how it responds to such complaints–labeled “foster care referrals”–and to enhance oversight as a result of the review.
The department did not respond to USA TODAY’s request for comment.
The review’s findings are indicative of a system that does not hold foster caregivers to the same level of scrutiny it imposes upon birth families, said Florida Senate Minority Leader Lauren Book, a Plantation Democrat and vice chair of the Children, Families and Elder Affairs Committee.
“If those were family-of-origin cases, would those children have been taken from their families? The answer is a resounding ‘yes,’ ” Book said. “We have a system that is taking children because they think they can do better (than parents), and we’re clearly seeing in black and white that they’re woefully ill-prepared to do so.”
DCF’s reluctance to share public records highlights the need for increased transparency, Book added. “There’s an iron curtain of protection that the department is putting around itself and it isn’t fair to children.”
USA TODAY’s six-part series examining Florida’s child welfare system last year revealed that state lawmakers rewrote rules in 2014 to make it easier to seize children from their parents, but had no plan for where to house the growing number of foster children. As a result, caseworkers placed kids in dangerously overcrowded homes and with foster parents who later faced civil or criminal charges of sexual assault and torture.
Following that investigation, former DCF Secretary Chad Poppell told a state Senate committee in January, “We did a bad job.”
USA TODAY also had requested foster parent disciplinary records in 2019, but DCF officials and executives in charge of the nonprofit agencies it contracts to oversee child welfare at the local level either denied access or demanded tens of thousands of dollars in fees.
In January, a government official who asked not to be identified provided reporters with foster parent reprimands, license revocation notices and a spreadsheet of 4,300 complaints involving foster and group homes.
The records described empty pantries and padlocked refrigerators, children stranded at school long after hours and a litany of racist and homophobic slurs. One caller alleged that a group home staffer gave a gay foster child literature that calledfor the execution of homosexuals.
Children and others accused foster parents in more than 100 cases of molestation and violating kids’ personal space or privacy, watching them as they showered or changed clothes. Others reported physical abuse: One caller said that when a child left Florida to be adopted in 2016, she had visible injuries on her torso from being kicked in the stomach by her foster mother.
DCF’s subsequent review of a sampling of those complaints found that in 59% of cases the person who responded was not a child protective investigator but rather a licensing specialist, case manager or other employee.
The review also noted that more than one-third of the complaints were not assessed according to DCF’s quality standards because child welfare workers failed to complete necessary interviews, collect relevant information, supply sufficient documentation or contact appropriate sources. Critics of Florida’s child welfare system say DCF and its contracted agencies have incentive not to substantiate allegations against state caregivers.
“The system chose that foster parent, screened that foster parent and approved that placement, so an accusation of abuse in foster care that’s investigated by DCF means that DCF is investigating itself,” said Richard Wexler, executive director of the National Coalition for Child Protection Reform. “It also means if they decide it’s true, they have to go and find another foster home. … That all combines to create a willful blindness.”
DCF’s approach to the complaints against foster caregivers stands in stark contrast to its treatment of accusations against parents, observers of the system noted. Those allegations are generally reviewed by trained investigators. And when parents warn that they fear their children are being abused in foster care, the complaints are often dismissed or minimized, said Stacie Schmerling, an attorney at Justice for Kids, which provides legal services to children who are abused, disabled or injured in foster care.
“I don’t want to give the impression that there’s always bias or it’s never warranted, but there’s a tendency to think a parent is just going to make up allegations to try to get their child back,” Schmerling said. “The child welfare system has an obligation to ensure children are safe and not abused or neglected.”