Florida Making Strides in Child-Welfare Reforms - Orlando Sentinel
There is a longstanding debate over the best ways to serve children in foster care. Both in Tallahassee and in Washington, bills are introduced every year in an effort to improve the system. Last month in the U.S. Senate, Sens. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, and Ron Wyden, D-Ore., introduced the Child Welfare Oversight and Accountability Act of 2017, following a report from the Senate Finance Committee that details findings from a two-year investigation into private foster-care placement agencies and how states license and monitor these groups.
The Senate report focuses on a large private agency based in Boston, The MENTOR Network, which handles foster-care placements in multiple states, although not in Florida. The investigation found that in many states where this agency operates, oversight of its operations is lax and data collection is sparse, which unfortunately puts children in its care at risk. The Child Welfare Oversight and Accountability Act seeks to address these problems by requiring more transparency from states that use private agencies, enhancing training for caseworkers and establishing incentives for foster children to be placed with family members.
As a residential group home that cares for many foster children, the Florida Sheriffs Youth Ranches —which celebrates its 60th anniversary this year — has a front-row seat to our state’s child-welfare system. We see the things that work well, the problems that need to be fixed and the opportunities where our state can lead without waiting for requirements from the federal government.
For example, Florida took a big step forward this past legislative session by creating quality standards for foster care — for foster parents and group homes alike. These standards, which become part of state statutes in 2019, set expectations for some of the most critical elements of foster care, including positive living environments, proper monitoring and reporting systems, and adequate education and skills training for foster youth.
We have pushed for quality standards for years because we agree with Hatch and Wyden. There should be high levels of accountability and strong oversight of the people and organizations taking care of our children. While we wish no child had to enter foster care, we must ensure the environments where they are placed are safe, stable and helpful in their journey to recovery. This meaningful reform, which could be a model for other states, was the result of collaboration among child-welfare advocates and state legislators, including Rep. Cyndi Stevenson, Rep. Gayle Harrell, Sen. Rene Garcia and Sen. Greg Steube.
On the federal level, the consistent drumbeat of voices against residential group care is a threat to Florida’s child-welfare system. Forty-six percent of our state’s child-welfare budget comes from federal funds in the form of Title IV-E waivers. As we see in the Child Welfare Oversight and Accountability Act, there are those who want to restrict states from using federal funds to place children in group homes and create financial incentives for keeping children with family members. If this were to pass, Florida would be forced to find other options for children who are placed in high-quality residential group homes — including Florida Sheriffs Youth Ranches, Boys Town, Florida United Methodist Children’s Home, St. Augustine Youth Services and others — or cover the costs without the assistance of federal funds. Neither scenario is good for our state.
We agree that home is always best for a child — provided there are family members or foster parents who have truly demonstrated their ability to care for, support and love the child. We believe in providing financial assistance, counseling and other related services if they can help stabilize the family and keep the child in the home. However, through our experience of providing services to children for 60 years, we know it’s crucial for the state to have a comprehensive system of care. The system should include properly trained foster parents, high-quality residential group homes and licensed treatment centers for children with complex needs — all held accountable and working together for the best interests of children.
Florida’s system, the subject of much criticism in recent years, is far from perfect, with too many children still falling through the cracks. The use of community-based care agencies to oversee foster placements, developed under Gov. Jeb Bush in the early 2000s, has its detractors. But our system is taking steps in the right direction. We have less bureaucracy and more accountability and oversight than when all decisions were made by a single state agency, the Department of Children and Families. We also have leaders in Tallahassee who are committed to making sure we give our children the options they deserve and the care they need.
Bill Frye - Bill Frye is the president of the Florida Sheriffs Youth Ranches, a residential group care program with four campuses for boys and girls. The Youth Ranches has operated in Florida since 1957.