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Child Welfare Agencies Get Cash Infusion From Lawmakers

Leon County Judge John Cooper on June 30, 2022, in a screen grab from The Florida Channel.
Wikimedia Commons
The Florida Channel
Leon County Judge John Cooper on June 30, 2022, in a screen grab from The Florida Channel.

 Private agencies that play a major role in Florida's child-welfare system will share an increase of more than $17 million under a new funding formula approved by lawmakers during last month's special legislative session.

Most of the new money will go to community-based care agencies --- or CBCs, as they're known --- in Broward, Miami-Dade, Palm Beach and St. Lucie counties and in Southwest Florida, areas where the state system has seen the largest increases of children coming into foster care.

For instance, the CBC that serves Broward County, ChildNet, will get an additional $3.57 million under the new formula, for a total of nearly $52 million. The CBC for Miami-Dade and Monroe counties, Our Kids, will get $2.38 million more, bringing its total to $71.5 million. The Children's Network of Southwest Florida, which serves Lee, Collier, Charlotte, Hendry and Glades counties, will get $4.36 million more for a total of just under $28.9 million.

But all 20 of Florida's community-based care agencies will receive at least some new money.

"I don't think there are any losers in this formula," Department of Children and Families Secretary Mike Carroll said.

The new formula got its start as four proposals, offered by the state House and Senate, Gov. Rick Scott's office and the Florida Coalition for Children, which represents the CBCs. All were based on the understanding that the system was being stretched by an influx of children --- and that under an old formula, some CBCs had gained money at the expense of others.

"We wanted to stop the practice of taking money from one area and giving it to another," said Shawn Salamida, chief executive officer of the Families First Network in Northwest Florida. "That's part of what we were trying to correct with this formula."

The CBCs also wanted help with the dramatic rise in kids entering the system. For instance, the number of children receiving in-home services in Miami-Dade and Monroe counties increased more than 63 percent from May 2013 to July 2014, while the number of children in out-of-home care increased nearly 36 percent.

"That puts a significant strain across the whole system over time," said Lee Kaywork, chief executive officer of Family Support Services of North Florida, which serves Duval and Nassau counties. "You not only have caseloads going up, it puts demands on substance-abuse providers, mental-health providers, the courts --- it just has a ripple effect when you start doing that."

Under Florida's child-welfare system, child-protective investigators decide whether charges of abuse or neglect are credible. If investigators determine that children aren't safe, they can refer families for services that will make it safer for children to remain at home --- such as substance-abuse or mental-health treatment for parents --- or recommend that children go into foster or group homes. Either way, once children come into the system, case managers paid for by the community-based care agencies oversee adoption and foster-care services.

Kurt Kelly, chief executive officer of the Florida Coalition for Children, said it's understood the CBCs will use much of their new money to hire more case managers.

"We needed to get some resources so that we could hire, and the state recognized that this year," Kelly, a former lawmaker, said. Although lawmakers didn't put that requirement into the state budget, he added, "It's understood that for the most part, that's what the money will be used for."

Currently, according to Kelly, the average caseload statewide is 20 to 22 children per case manager. But even with the expectation of new hires, he added, some of the CBCs may struggle to get their caseloads down due to new cases coming in. "I won't say that's happened yet, but it is happening, and we're very concerned," he said.

The increase in children coming into the system has many factors, but it's generally agreed that a new methodology for determining child safety plays a key role.

For instance, Salamida's CBC --- which serves Escambia, Santa Rosa, Okaloosa and Walton counties --- was the first one to roll out the new safety methodology, in January 2014. Following that, he said, the number of children in state care in his region shot up 32 percent.

And while his current caseload is 17 or 18 per case manager, Salamida said, "This funding's going to help me get it down to 15 to 1."

Kaywork said the number of children coming into state care in Jacksonville had spiked 35 percent. His case managers are averaging 15 to 16 cases apiece, but Kaywork hopes to get that down to 12.

Carroll said he's not done tinkering with the funding formula, which is based on three factors: the number of calls to the state abuse hotline, the caseloads and the child population in each area. Also, Carroll said the Department of Children and Families has worked to prevent the poorest performers from collecting the most money simply because they had the highest numbers of kids.

"We wanted to find a way where we could more equitably distribute the funds that would more closely reflect what the workload was in any given area," Carroll said. "But we also wanted to make sure it incentivized good practice. … I don't want to penalize kids anywhere, but I don't want to reward poor performance."