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South Florida’s Foster Care Program Urgently Needs to Change

South Florida’s Foster Care Program Urgently Needs to Change

A long series of suicides, suspicious deaths, sexual trafficking and abuse cases show the continuing failure of the State of Florida to protect children placed into foster care. Poor supervision, lack of accountability, inadequate financial resources and an insufficient supply of suitable foster homes are among the serious problems that have plagued South Florida’s privatized system.

Fortunately, the state has recently called for bids to find a new foster care partner from the private sector – a change that is urgently needed in order to improve safety and services for these vulnerable children.

A History of Failure

Between 1985 through 2001, five grand juries and 11 special panels documented the grotesque failures that resulted in the re-abuse of foster children in the custody of the Florida Department of Children & Families (DCF) and its predecessor agency in Miami-Dade and Monroe Counties.

After Rilya Wilson, a 3-year-old foster child in Miami, disappeared from her caregiver’s home in 2001 and was never found, another blue-ribbon panel urged the agency to privatize foster care. Unfortunately, DCF’s 2005 privatization of foster care with Our Kids of Miami-Dade/Monroe, Inc. has proven equally futile, as foster children are still physically, sexually and emotionally abused in an overcrowded system that has failed to protect them. 

Unlike other privatized agencies that provide direct services, Our Kids subcontracts most of its $100 million/year budget to multiple, independent case management agencies and service providers. These agencies have siphoned precious resources away from foster children to pay the salaries of multiple chief executive officers, chief operating officers, chief information officers, and general counsels.

Even worse, Our Kids’ failed to implement a system of real quality assurance and accountability for its agencies. The result has been insufficient risk assessments, lack of foster homes and placements, overutilization of group care for young children, lack of mental health services, lack of safety plans to protect children from harm, high numbers of missing/runaway children, large numbers of children who are victims of sex trafficking while in foster care, and high turnover in case managers.

New calls for corrective action

In 2011, Nubia Barahona was murdered and her twin brother, Victor Barahona, was burned with acid and nearly killed by their adoptive father, who, along with his wife, adopted the children despite warnings to multiple agencies that the children had been abused and neglected by their foster/adoptive parents for years. Another review of the privatized system after Nubia’s death found a systemic failure of the child welfare system created by a fragmented business model with antiquated processes, procedures, and technologists conflicting rules and incentives. Our Kids was put on corrective action to become more involved in cases and increase its oversight of its case management agencies.

In 2014, Our Kids was again put on corrective action to address “numerous systemic deficiencies.” A peer review again recommended that Our Kids increase its oversight, support and accountability of case management services.

That same year, Our Kids assumed responsibility for recruitment, licensing, training, and support of foster homes in the Southern Region, and in 2015, took over placement responsibility for foster children in its system of care. But Our Kids continued to rely on group home and shelter placements instead of recruiting sufficient foster homes.

Meanwhile, sexual trafficking cases and fatalities of children in foster care have continued. Lauryn Martin-Everett who was 16 and had been in at least 10 placements, died by suicide on December 15, 2016 after she hung herself from a scarf in the bathroom doorway at the same Florida Keys shelter. On January 22, 2017, 14-year-old Naika Venant, who had been in 14 placements, died by suicide after hanging herself from a scarf in her foster mother’s Miami Gardens bathroom. There have been 13 child fatalities in Miami-Dade County this year so far, including 2-year-old Ethan Coley, who was scalded by hot bath water while in the care of a young sibling. His mother, who had a long history of abusing and neglecting her children, failed to seek medical attention for the injuries that took Ethan’s life.

On February 20, 2018, a federal class action lawsuit was filed in the Northern District of Florida seeking to remedy these numerous deficiencies in the foster care system in the Southern Region and to prevent ongoing harm and risk of harm to seven named plaintiffs. The lawsuit claims that that the lack of appropriate therapeutic placements and the resulting instability has had deadly consequences for foster children in the Southern Region. The lawsuit also alleges that Our Kids has misused nearly $1 billion in federal and state taxpayer funds over the last ten years without remedying known dangers to children. 

Although the shift to privatization was supposed to increase protection for the state’s vulnerable children, Our Kids’ system of care has perpetuated the dysfunctionality that has existed for decades. It remains an experiment that continues to harm and fail our children.

Because Our Kids’ contract will soon expire, the state’s Department of Children and Family Services recently released an invitation to negotiate for the Southern Region. Hopefully, this time there will be an agency that is accountable for the children who deserve the best possible protection from the state.

Howard Talenfeld focuses his practice on children’s rights and represents abused and neglected children as managing partner at Talenfeld Law in Plantation

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