A bill aimed at reforming the way Florida foster children are placed in group homes died on the last day of the 2016 legislative session.
But the bill's failure isn't likely to stop efforts by state and national policymakers to try to reduce the number of children living in group homes --- and how long the kids stay there.
"It's absolutely critical that we have the right level of intervention --- the right placement for the right kid at the right time," state Department of Children and Families Secretary Mike Carroll said. "And I think that's what this bill originally was attempting to do. Now, it got all sideways, I understand. But this is a priority we're going to continue to address from within the department."
The House and Senate ended the annual session Friday without working out differences on proposals (SB 7018 and HB 599), filed by Sen. Nancy Detert, R-Venice, and Reps. Gayle Harrell, R-Stuart, and Neil Combee, R-Polk City.
An original proposal would have required the Department of Children and Families to create an assessment process for kids who are removed from their families and placed in what's known as "out-of-home care" --- which could be a relative or family friend, a foster family or a group home.
It also would have required the department to develop a "continuum of care" to provide appropriate services for the children, many of whom have been badly traumatized. The services would have needed to comply with state and federal requirements for the children to be placed in the least restrictive settings.
But as the session came to a close, Detert said, the House version did not contain some of the assessment language "that was important to the Senate," and the proposal ultimately died.
It was Detert's last legislative session, but Harrell, who is running for re-election, said she was "very disappointed" with the bill's demise and might bring it back next year.
"I think we had a very good bill there," Harrell said. "It was part of the transformation we are making in child welfare, and it was the next step moving forward from (SB) 1666, (a sweeping child-welfare reform bill that passed in 2014). So I think it's unfortunate that it did not get passed in the Senate."
Carroll called residential group care an "emotional topic," both for those who seek to reduce it and those who seek to preserve it.
A 2015 report by the Florida Institute for Child Welfare said the number of children in the U.S. foster care system declined by 21 percent over the past decade. And so did the number of children in residential group care, which declined by 37 percent. In 2013, about 14 percent of U.S. children in out-of-home care were in some form of residential group facility.
In Florida, meanwhile, the number of children in out-of-home care declined by 33 percent from 2006 to 2014. During that time, the percentage of children in Florida group care remained steady at 11 percent.
"Although the appropriate use of (residential group care) has been a subject of longstanding debate, most child welfare experts, including practitioners, researchers, and advocacy groups, acknowledge that for some youth involved in the child welfare system, high quality group care is an essential and even life saving intervention," noted the Florida Institute for Child Welfare report.
Group homes cost the state nearly $81.7 million for approximately 2,200 children in 2013-2014 --- more than $37,000 per child. In comparison, the state rate when a foster family cared for a child aged 13 to 17 was $527 per month, or $6,324 per year.
Carole Shauffer of the San Francisco-based Youth Law Center, a noted critic of group care, said there is no justification for the spending disparity.
"You pay a group home multiple times as much as you pay a foster home with no evidence that this is a service anybody needs or is benefiting from," she said. "I don't understand how a Republican legislature and a Republican governor can even accept that."
But Victoria Vangalis Zepp of the Florida Coalition for Children, which represents group homes and the community-based care lead agencies that contract with them, said that doesn't take into account the extra services that foster families receive.
"The reason they use group care is that at a lot of group homes, (children) get compete wraparound services," she said. "When someone goes into a foster family, then all the wraparound services --- mental health, counseling, therapeutic counseling, medically fragile --- all of those services are over and above what is then paid to that foster family. So, many times, that's not the way the math works out."
Shelley Katz, chief operating officer of the Children's Home Society of Florida, which operates a number of group homes, said providers would need help from the state to provide the services being discussed in the failed "continuum of care" bill.
As to Carroll's plans to push ahead with changes to group care, Katz said, "I think it will get the buy-in it needs from providers if there are some assurances that the providers will be given rates that support the quality of care that's desired. And if that is not part of the equation, then providers are just looking to fail … because we're agreeing to something we cannot deliver."