Challenges Facing Florida’s Child Welfare System

Challenges Facing Florida’s Community Based Child Welfare System
TaxWatch Report, November 2015

Protecting Florida’s abused, abandoned, neglected, and at-risk youth is an issue near and dear to the hearts of many Floridians, and the state’s community-based child welfare system is responsible for the care and well-being of many of these children and adolescents. Currently, there are more than 22,000 children in foster care across the state of Florida, many of whom arrive in foster care as victims of abuse and/or neglect. Sadly, that number that continues to grow.
In recent years, shifts in child welfare system practices have increased the number of children being brought to the attention of Florida’s child welfare system. Investments in services that prevent child removals (the need to remove children from their homes) and improve permanency outcomes (outcomes resulting in adoption or reunification with the child’s original family) have not expanded or changed to meet these shifts in practice. For many years, the statewide core funding for the state’s community-based child welfare system has been relatively stagnant or even reduced. Accounting for inflation, funding for community-based care providers has decreased by almost 13 percent. This lack of adequate financial resources drives up caseloads and leads to case manager workforce instability. These service and workforce issues contribute to increased demand for child welfare and result in longer stays in the system and negative child permanency outcomes, at great taxpayer expense.
Workforce Instability
The annual turnover rate among case managers in Florida averages 37 percent statewide, but can run as
high as 80 percent in certain areas. 22 While low pay likely plays a part (Florida’s child, family, and school social workers make almost 10 percent less than the national average), 23 research shows that pay is not the most important factor in case managers’ career decisions.
Most case managers see their profession as more of a calling than an occupation.24 Of the most
competent case managers in Florida, over 96 percent say that their greatest job satisfaction comes from
helping children.25 What does have an impact on turnover are workloads and environments.
Case managers often work extensive hours, and enter extremely difficult, at times life-threatening,

The weight of these situations, plus frequent contact with traumatized children and high
caseloads due to insufficient staffing levels, can result in stress disorders that exhibit many of the same
symptoms as post-traumatic stress, leading to burnout and depression among many case managers,
causing them to resign. 26

Workforce instability also takes a toll on children in the system. As case managers leave their positions,
their cases are handed off to new case managers, resulting in delays in the timeliness of children’s
permanency outcomes as new case managers need to be trained and familiarized with children’s
situations. These create inefficiencies that lead to longer stays, higher caseloads, and increased demand on the system.

To demonstrate the severity of this issue, research examining children coming into the child welfare
system and exiting to permanency within a 21 month period showed that a child in foster care who only
has one case manager in that time frame has the highest (75 percent) chance of either being reunited with his or her family or becoming part of another family through adoption, while the transition of that child’s case to a second manager drops the likelihood of those outcomes to 17.5 percent.27 Having four managers within the 21 month period saw the child’s chances drop to 2 percent.28 Of children with 6 or 7 case managers during the given timeframe, 0.1 percent were adopted or reunited with their families home.29

While the severity of these results occur due to higher numbers of case managers handling individual
cases over a short period of time, they indicate that case manager turnover (and the transfer of cases) can have a significant impact on the outcomes of children coming into state care. All the more reason state investment in front-end services that prevent child removals and maintain child safety in-home, as well as back-end services that help children already under state care achieve permanency, are so important.

Workforce and service issues not only contribute to increased demand and fewer positive child outcomes, but also pose a significant economic problem for taxpayers. The cost of turnover for one case manager (comprised of, at minimum, costs for additional training and recruitment) falls around $10,000.41 Florida employs almost 3,800 case managers,42 of which an estimated 37 percent (approximately 1,400) resign and are replaced within one year, which costs the state approximately $14 million annually.
To continue improving the child welfare system while maintaining child safety, Florida TaxWatch recommends that Florida:

• Implement services that improve accessibility and availability of child welfare services at all stages of the system, with an emphasis on prevention services that serve at-risk families in their homes and that give case managers more flexibility to serve the families with which they interact.
• Initiate programs that stabilize and provide opportunities to grow the child welfare workforce, particularly programs that provide early educational opportunities for exposure to the field and help case managers cope with workplace stressors.

These solutions have the potential to alleviate caseloads and stress for employees in child welfare as well as improve outcomes for Florida’s most vulnerable children, but they cannot come to fruition without state investment. Higher levels of stable, recurring resources for child welfare in Florida would improve the system’s services array as well as bolster and expand the work force. This will result in shorter stays in the system and better permanency outcomes for child welfare-involved youth, as well as reduced caseloads and turnover among case managers, ensuring the mutual success of the child welfare system in general as well as the children it serves.
Read the complete report here: https://www.flchildren.org/images/TaxWatch_ChildWelfareStudy.pdf

Protect Siblings in Foster Care

By Sean Pleus – 2.17.17

 Growing up in a large family I have been blessed to have the support and familiarity of my five siblings, one of whom was adopted.  I have also been lucky to have my parents around, however, I still relied and continue to rely on the advice and support of my siblings.  I can only imagine how difficult it would be without my parents, and even more so without my brothers and sisters.

Sadly, close to 40% of the sibling groups in foster care in Florida are separated from their brothers and sisters.  I cannot imagine being torn from my home, parents and family only to be left in the care of stranger without my brothers and sisters. I learned about this issue as part of my Leadership Broward Class 35. I and seven of my classmates, self-named Sibling’s Rock, were blessed with the opportunity to work with Children’s Harbor, a nationally accredited nonprofit child welfare agency, to raise awareness about sibling being separated in foster care. Children’s Harbor was established twenty years ago to keep brothers and sisters together in loving, nurturing in group homes on their beautiful eight-acre campus in Pembroke Pines.

Upon beginning our project, we got a chance to meet with the children who call Children’s Harbor home and talk to the House Parents who care for them. To say that it was an eye opening experience would not even begin to describe what I witnessed.  The dedication of the House Parents who stay with these children and the way in which both the children and parents interact with each other is both inspiring and humbling.  These children, some of whom have been through unimaginable life events, are having fun, learning, and enjoying the company of each other.

So why aren’t more siblings placed together in wonderful places like Children’s Harbor? While the Florida law dictates a preference to place sibling together, group homes are often considered the last option for placement. Florida law denotes that children should be placed in the “least restrictive and most family-like setting”. Due to capacity issues in foster homes, this course of action may lead to sibling separation rather than putting them in a nurturing group home.

Research tells us that siblings can assist in alleviating some of the fear, loss, confusion, and anxiety associated with being in care. Sibling relationships are significant in childhood development as they are among the longest and most consistent relationships we have.

The benefit of high quality group homes, like Children’s Harbor, is that they are able to keep brothers and sisters in the same area and coordinate transportation, school, events and other social activities all in one central location.  Having seen the bonds of these relationships first hand I can attest to the overwhelming benefit that seeing one’s sibling on a regular basis can play in the development of our youth.

Our Leadership Broward group has had the privilege of interacting with these children, parents and staff at several events and we continue to be inspired by the great work being done at Children’s Harbor.

I would encourage everyone to talk to their legislators about protecting sibling in foster care by supporting group home organizations and learn more about Children’s Harbor and the great work they are doing for children in foster care by going to www.childrensharbor.org.  I don’t think I ever would have done so had it not been for Leadership Broward, and because of that my appreciation and understanding of quality group foster care has been forever changed.  I would like to personally thank everyone at Children’s Harbor, for opening their doors and hearts as well as my team, Sibling’s Rock: Elaine Wheatley, Adam Lang, Nicole Maron, Jane Kaufman, Roshun Wheeler, Kathryn Sims, and Roger Roa for all of their dedication and support!

 

Keeping brothers and sisters in foster care together

Current Florida law puts placement of children in a residential group home as the last option.

This makes it difficult to keep brothers and sisters in foster care together.2013 sibling groups, or 36% of all foster kids are not placed together, and 85% of children in foster care are part of a sibling group and fully half are not placed together. This means that at least 30% will only see their siblings once a month, or not at all.

Youth who are separated from their brothers and sisters in foster care have described the experience as an “extra punishment, a separate loss, and another pain that is not needed.”

Positive sibling relationships have been associated with higher self-esteem and a decreased likelihood of internalizing problems leading to depression, anxiety, withdrawal and somatic complaints.

Although Florida law also dictates that the case manager “shall prefer to keep siblings together if at all possible,” the lack of specificity in the language allows for sibling connections to be overlooked. After sometimes years of neglect and abuse, it makes sense for siblings to be together to alleviate some of the fear, loss, confusion and anxiety of being separated from their parents.

Quality residential group care not only allows for siblings to stay together in foster care, but provides 24 hour parenting with consistent supervision, monitoring of education, recreational and work activities. Florida law should require case managers to place children in a residential group living facility as a top priority if it will keep siblings together.

Foster care voices from the frontline

Voice of Children’s Harbor President & CEO, Dr. Elizabeth Wynter
What do you think of when you hear the word ‘foster care’? You might think about the children who have been abused and feel sympathetic. You might think about an orphanage staffed by uncaring people. Or you might think about a dysfunctional system that is spending billions of taxpayer dollars.  I think that the best way to learn about foster care is to listen to the voices of the people on the frontlines. As the CEO of Children’s Harbor, a child welfare nonprofit agency, I get the incredible opportunity to watch these children grow and blossom. I get to witness house parents go above and beyond and advocate for improvements to the system. Children’s Harbor is celebrating its 20th Anniversary this year. And after two decades of caring for children in the foster care system in residential group homes, we have lots of stories to share.

I want to share these personal stories to give you a glimpse into the world of foster care. I want you to hear the awe inspiring stories and the challenges facing people who live on the front line of the foster care system. I want you to join me in starting a real conversation about foster care with our legislators, community leaders, and the media.    While I know that one voice is not loud enough to make a difference, I believe that by combining our voices we can amplify the message and impact the lives of ___ children in the foster care system across the state of Florida.

You can make a difference

By Bill Mahoney

Twenty years ago, I learned that when children enter the foster care system they were often separated from their brothers and sisters. I could not imagine that after enduring a childhood filled with abuse and neglect they would suffer a fate of losing their siblings during such a turbulent time. After visiting a group home campus for siblings in North Florida, my colleague Karla Nickell said, so now that we know that this is such a huge issue, how can we just turn our backs on this?

We were insurance brokers without any idea of what it would take to start a nonprofit organization, but we knew that we had to do something. In 1996 we established Children’s Harbor as a 501(c)3. We had no campus and no money but we had passion, persistence, and a caring community.

Starting a nonprofit organization is sort of like raising a child; it comes with all of the same joys, heartaches, and fears for its future. Along the way, Children’s Harbor was blessed with incredible support from the City of Pembroke Pines who provided us with a beautiful 8 acre campus and with innumerable individuals and community-minded corporations who gave us their time, talent, and treasure.

Now in 2016, we are celebrating Children’s Harbor 20th Anniversary and I am one proud papa! The organization has grown into a top-notch, nationally accredited child welfare agency. Over the past two decades, Children’s Harbor has provided 3,800 families with in-home counseling, given 60 teen mothers a safe haven to raise their babies, and offered 250 foster care children a loving place to call home.

So if you are thinking about making a difference in your community or in the life of a child, I would tell you to open your heart and follow your passion. Don’t hesitate, you CAN make a difference, and I promise that you will get back more than you give.