With the rate of children coming into Florida's foster-care system slowly increasing, state lawmakers are studying how to improve the options of where the children go to live.
The House Children, Families and Seniors Subcommittee took up the question Wednesday, hearing a series of presentations about the system, which includes just under 22,000 children.
The rate of kids in what's known as out-of-home care has risen slowly but steadily over the past two years, according to the state Department of Children and Families. Last month, the rate was 5.53 per 1,000 children, compared with a rate of 4.54 per 1,000 children in November 2013. In July 2014, when a sweeping child-welfare reform law went into effect, the rate of children in out-of-home care was 4.8 per 1,000.
Of the children in the system, 55 percent are placed with relatives or family friends, 28 percent are in family foster homes, 7 percent are in group care and 3 percent are in therapeutic foster care. The rest are in residential treatment, emergency shelters or hospitals, or have run away from their placements.
As the strain on the system intensifies, lawmakers are studying the options for foster children with an eye to improving the outcomes for the kids.
Members of the House panel seemed taken aback, for instance, when they heard that foster families are paid $15 a day to care for children, while group homes with shift workers get $124 a day and group homes that use a house-parent model get $97 a day.
"Foster families told us their supports were not adequate," Megan Smernoff, of the Legislature's Office of Program Policy Analysis and Government Accountability, or OPPAGA, told the House panel.
"Anyone who has raised children … would understand that $15 is wholly insufficient," said Rep. Bill Hager, R-Delray Beach.
Smernoff also said foster families reported problems with the high turnover among case managers who oversee foster-care placements. Also, case managers told OPPAGA they didn't feel their input was heeded in decisions about where to place children.
Part of the discussion Wednesday centered on group homes.
Christina Spudeas, executive director of the advocacy group Florida's Children First, said group homes are necessary in the continuum of care for foster kids, "but some are not a place where you would want a child to live." Many group homes, she added, are located in neighborhoods where case workers and guardians ad litem don't feel safe visiting.
"Imagine how the child feels living there," Spudeas said.
Charles Bender, executive director of the faith-based provider Place of Hope in South Florida, said recent child-abuse deaths have occurred in foster homes, not group care.
"There's some bad group homes, but there's some bad foster homes all around the state," he said.
Bender also said he didn't believe more regulation was necessary in foster care.
"They just need to enforce the current regs and the current contracts," he said.
Even if there was a large influx of new foster families, Bender said, "We would still have kids in group care, because that's where they need to be."
The House panel is expected to consider a bill (HB 599) by Rep. Neil Combee, R- Polk City, that would require the Department of Children and Families to match kids with the best placement options. Sponsored in the Senate by the Children, Families and Elder Affairs Committee, the proposal (SPB 7018) would require the use of a process to determine which settings --- from relatives or friends to foster families or group homes --- offer abused children the best chance to recover and thrive.
In part, the bill would ensure that an array of services --- such as intervention, domestic-violence counseling and mental-health and substance-abuse treatment --- would be available to keep maltreated kids from having to leave their family homes in the first place.