For the community-based care providers that perform the lion’s share of child welfare services in Florida, the proposed 2017 budget is a disappointment.
A press release that accompanied the Jan. 31 release of Republican Gov. Rick Scott’s “Fighting for Florida’s future” budget proposal touts “a record $632 million to provide core services to children who depend on Florida’s child welfare system.”
“Governor Scott and the Legislature have been exceptionally supportive of the child welfare system and [the Department of Children and Families] is committed to ensuring that all of our resources are directed to be as efficient and effective as possible in serving vulnerable families,” David Frady, press secretary for the Florida DCF, told Watchdog in an email.
But number-crunching done by Florida TaxWatch, a non-partisan taxpayer research group, shows that this statement fails to tell the whole story.
According to TaxWatch’s November 2015 report, real spending on child welfare services has declined since 2008, when inflation-adjusted funding for child welfare providers hit $674.1 million (in 2015 dollars).
At the same time as the effective operating budget of the DCF has been declining, the number of children entering the welfare system has been increasing.
Kurt Kelly, CEO of the Florida Coalition for Children and former state legislator, told Watchdog that there are several factors behind the increased demand for child welfare services.
Part of the growth of children in the system is an outcome of policy changes at the DCF that result in children being removed from unsuitable homes quicker — a good thing, Kelly says.
He added that high turnover rates of child protection investigators affect this process. CPIs investigate claims of abuse and determine if a child needs to be placed into foster care, but the turnover rate means many investigators are new on the job. “Eighty percent of folks making decisions have less than two years experience,” Kelly said. With DCF policies that favor caution and quick action above all else, this might lead to inflated child removal numbers.
The newest threat, Kelly says, is the opioid issue, which is affecting families across the state. In addition to increased deaths from opioid misuse, CPIs are inclined to remove kids from homes if they see any signs of opioid abuse.
“We saw it in the Sarasota area, which may be the epicenter of the United States in this issue,” Kelly said. “In that area, our removal rate [of children from the family home] in the Sarasota/Manatee area is up 200 percent, which is … unsustainable.”
As of Feb. 28, Florida child welfare services were being provided to 41,707 children.
Underfunded and over-performing
Florida’s child welfare system relies on a community-based care model.
This means that once the DCF investigators have determined that a child needs to be pulled from home, they hand responsibility to regional care organizations. The not-for-profit private organizations administer services to children that enter the foster care system, as well as preventive care services for children that can remain at home, albeit in difficult circumstances.
Seventeen CBC lead agencies operate around the state. These lead agencies, which are spread out around 20 different regions, include Community Based Care of Central Florida and Our Kids of Miami-Dade. They are accountable to the DCF, but operate independently, and subcontract care out to smaller community organizations.
The transition from a more centralized, Tallahassee-administered services model began at the turn of the century. By 2006, the CBC model was operational statewide.
Kelly told Watchdog that Florida’s welfare system now serves as a model for other states. But funding remains a problem.
He estimates that Florida’s child welfare system needs a $49 million budget increase for 2017-18. DCF requested a $16 million increase for the community care centers.
The current proposal from Scott would allocate a $14.2 million funding increase for Florida’s community-based care providers.
Florida TaxWatch says the system needs another $100 million. The group’s analysis shows that the community-based care providers in particular have been underfunded, while overperforming, for years.
Kelly told Watchdog that the community care providers were allowed access to backup funds several years ago, but quickly went through it. “When I tell you that we’re 20 million in the hole, that’s money that’s being spent right now.”
Decentralization is key
The 2012 Right for Kids Ranking, a report on child welfare systems across the nation, found that Florida has one of the best-performing systems.
Florida ranked fourth in the nation based on measureable outcomes such as adoption rates, family reunification and monthly caseworker visits.
The report found that if all states had welfare programs as effective as Florida’s, the U.S. would have 72,000 fewer kids in foster care per year and find adoptive families for 19,000 more.
Advocates like Florida’s Coalition for Children trace the effectiveness of the Florida system to its decentralization in 1998. Legislation mandated that the DCF contract direct care to private organizations operating at the local level.
Florida isn’t alone in experimenting with decentralizing state child welfare systems. Kansas initiated similar privatization initiatives in 1995. Although the transition was rockier, a 2010 study by the Casey Family Programs found that “the general public, local communities and stakeholders are more invested in what is happening in Kansas child welfare than ever before,” and that more children were exiting the system into permanent homes.
A 2015 study by the Foundation for Government Accountability, a Naples-based free market think-tank, examined Safe Families, a community-based private child welfare program in Chicago. The FGA report advocated shifting more child welfare power to community organizations.
Increasing the risk
Although the numbers show that the community-based care model has been a success in Florida and elsewhere, no system is free from problems.
Foster Shock, a 2016 documentary that tells the story of children who the Florida system has failed, and suggests that the decentralized, privatized system diverts money away from child services and into organization salaries.
Other dissenters focus less on the whole picture, and more on the individuals that child services has let down. Groups such as Florida’s Children First and firms like Talenfield Law advocate on behalf of the legal rights of children in the system — often, that means lawsuits in the face of the inevitable tragic failures.
“Even when we’re totally doing everything right there’s going to be slips and mistakes made and cracks in the system,” Dominic Calabro, CEO of Florida TaxWatch, told Watchdog. “But when you don’t have the full focus or the full reasonable resources, you just increase the risk. And you have high turnover [of caseworkers]. You just increase the likelihood that something bad will happen.”
Elle Piloseno, Florida TaxWatch researcher and author of the 2015 report, told Watchdog that insufficiently funding the system on the front end has social and fiscal implications for the future.
One of the biggest problems the foster care system faces is retaining caseworkers. High turnover rates mean that children deal with an increasing number of case managers — and that adds to their time in the system.
“Every time that this kid needs to be handed over to a new case manager, that case manager has to be trained, they have to be familiarized with the children that they’re serving, they have to be familiarized with the families and the individual characteristics of that situation,” Piloseno said. “All that time adds up when you’re trading hands a bunch of times, which is why turnover is such a huge issue.”
And as a general rule, the longer a child spends in the foster care system, the worse off they are. When kids age out of the system at 18 before finding a permanent home, pregnancy rates go up. High school diploma rates go down. “A quarter of the youth that are aging out of the child welfare system end up being incarcerated within two years,” Piloseno said.
The TaxWatch study found that in addition to creating poor outcomes for children, workforce turnover adds to the taxpayer burden.
“Florida employs almost 3,800 case managers, of which an estimated 37 percent (approximately 1,400) resign and are replaced within one year.” The study found this costs the state approximately $14 million annually.
Prolonging an individual child’s stay in the welfare system has a significant cost. “Taxpayers could pay up to $70,000 per year to care for one child in out-of-home care,” TaxWatch reports.
“People need to understand there’s a real connection and real consequence when you don’t fund [the system],” said Calabro. “Pay me now, or pay me later.”
If it ain’t broke …
But if the system is performing as well as advocates say it is relative to the national standard with its current funding levels, does it really need more money?
“You didn’t just play the devil’s advocate, you played the legislative advocate,” said Kelly. “That’s exactly one of our problems.”
“We have done so much more for less, which is a good thing … and we did all of that while there wasn’t a dramatic increase of kids coming into the system,” he said. New influxes of kids into the system are straining strapped resources. Moreover, he argues, Florida’s foster system might be doing well relative to other states, but they still have a lot of ways they can improve and better protect kids.
The community-based care providers depend heavily on philanthropy to perform the basic functions DCF has tasked them with, which is exactly the type of local engagement that makes community-based care so effective. However, Kelly says that doesn’t absolve the state of its duty to properly fund the programs.
“The state has a responsibility to provide those resources, because we’re frankly doing the services for the state,” he said.
“They couldn’t do it, we are doing it, and we’re doing a much better job. But that doesn’t mean they don’t have an obligation to make sure that they fund this the right way,” Kelly said.