An analysis of state child welfare records shows that thousands of foster children in Florida have led transient lives, staying just a few nights in one place before being moved to another family or group home.
The Tampa Bay Times reviewed over 1 million child welfare records regarding 280,000 foster children in Florida between 2000 and 2017.
The records showed that roughly 1,500 children stayed in 12 different homes in a single year. Over 7,500 children moved about once a month over a six-month period. Almost 2,000 children had six placements in a single month.
According to the review, the majority of the children received long-term placements. But thousands did not, particularly older children. Over the last five years, almost 20 percent of children ages 13 and old were moved more than five times.
More than 2,000 children currently live in group homes, according to the state data.
Child psychologists say frequent moves can affect a foster child's grades in school and a child's ability to form healthy relationships.
"That instability just damages your mental health so severely," said Marlene Bloom, a Hillsborough County psychologist who has worked with foster children for 20 years. "There are children who would be better off staying in an abusive family than in foster care. That's horrible to say, but if you can't offer them something better, why are we removing them?"
Florida Department of Children and Families officials said that many foster children have suffered abuse, abandonment and domestic violence, and they often can develop destructive behaviors while failing to trust adults.
State officials also said the newspaper's analysis includes placements made before Florida privatized foster care under Gov. Jeb Bush. His administration put nonprofit groups in charge of foster care in each of the state's 19 judicial circuits to increase local control.
"A vast majority, 14 of Florida's 19 community-based care lead agencies, are surpassing federal performance standards for placement stability and DCF is working closely with the remaining lead agencies to recruit more foster homes and better support foster families in the communities they serve," Rebecca Kapusta, interim department secretary, said in an email. "If we find that foster children aren't being cared for properly, we hold the organizations responsible for their care accountable."
According to the records, the five agencies that are not meeting the federal standards are responsible for about 60 percent of Florida's foster children.
Due to a shortage of foster beds, the state often fails to match children with behavioral issues with caregivers trained to help them, which can result in children being moved because their foster parents are unable to cope with them, said Robin Rosenberg, deputy director of Florida's Children First, a statewide advocacy organization focused on children's rights.
"People perceive them as having bad behavior and being bad kids when those are pretty normal coping mechanisms for terrible situations," Rosenberg said.