As lawmakers continue efforts to shore up the front lines of Florida’s child-protection system, they are also eyeing the back end — that is, what happens to children who have been removed from family homes due to abuse and neglect.
House and Senate committees this week examined the options for those children, with the Senate Children, Families and Elder Affairs Committee on Thursday passing a bill (SB 940) aimed at helping foster children who live in group homes.
The measure by Sen. Nancy Detert, R-Venice, would push the foster-care system to rely less on group care and do more to find permanent families for children. She said it was a response to a recent study that showed that placing children in group homes instead of with foster families is much more expensive and possibly worse for kids.
The study, released last month by the Legislature’s Office of Program Policy Analysis and Government Accountability, found that group homes cost the state nearly $81.7 million for about 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 age 13 to 17 is $527 per month, or $6,324 per year.
The study also found that group homes primarily serve older children — and more males and minority children — with behavioral health issues. Physical aggression, running away, truancy and drug use were all higher among children in group homes as opposed to foster families.
“The kids in our group homes have a higher level of aggression. That’s what got them here,” Kenneth Bender, executive director of Boys Town North Florida, told the House Children, Families and Seniors Subcommittee on Wednesday.
Bender said the youths also have a higher level of depression, which can spark aggressive behavior as well.
Others, however, contend that children who have been so mistreated in their homes that they must be removed for their own safety would benefit most from loving families.
“Group care is an intervention; it’s not a place to live,” Carole Shauffer of the San Francisco-based Youth Law Center told the Senate panel on Thursday. “Group care is designed to get kids back into the place where they can live with a family.”
“They need normalcy in their lives,” Janice Thomas, assistant secretary for child welfare at the Department of Children and Families, told the House panel on Wednesday. “They also need adult advocates who are looking out for the best interests of the children.”
As of January, 8,827 children in out-of-home care had been placed with relatives; 2,034 had been placed with non-relatives such as a teacher, coach or family friend; 6,734 were in licensed family foster homes; and 2,177 were in licensed group care facilities, according to information presented by the Department of Children and Families to lawmakers.
Slightly more than 11 percent of children who are removed from their families are placed in group homes rather than with relatives, friends or foster families. National surveys suggest that long-term outcomes were slightly worse for Florida children in group care.
“The OPPAGA report indicates that there seems to be no effective, consistent system in Florida for determining which children are placed in which group home and assessing whether group care is appropriate or whether the child is benefiting from the placement,” Detert said. “A placement for a child should not be a placement of last resort.”
But for some children it is.
“It depends on the area and the system of care,” Thomas said. “Sometimes, unfortunately, it is because we don’t have enough foster homes.”
Detert’s bill would address that by requiring the Department of Children and Families to develop a proposal for a continuum of care for foster children. It would include a method of assessing children to decide on their initial placements.
Just under half of the children in group care have fewer than two placements before being placed in a group home, according to the OPPAGA report.
“We hear group-home providers say that a particular child in their care was in multiple placements before coming to them,” Detert said. “The need for better assessment before an initial placement is made is obvious. A child shouldn’t be set up to fail a placement because of a bad initial assessment.”
The first version of Detert’s bill would have gone further to reduce group care and would have restricted the circumstances and lengths of time that children could stay in group homes employing shift workers. But the Florida Coalition for Children, which represents group homes and community-based care agencies that subcontract with them, objected in part on the grounds that some children need more intensive therapies.
“I really don’t like the term ‘shift care,’ ” Shelley Katz, chief operating officer of Children’s Home Society of Florida, told the House panel. “I think it is a little bit offensive to some of our staff who have invested 25 years in the care of children.”