child welfare, law, and lots of graphs

child welfare, law, and lots of graphs

Charts & Graphs

The GAL Program’s Budget in 31 Charts

This is an exciting time for someone who teaches about the legal representation of children in foster care. Florida is currently in the middle of the most public discussion of its system we have ever had, and I am loving it. There has been a full OPPAGA report, four senate committee hearings (including presentations by judges with differing viewpoints), op-eds calling for a change, and a senate bill proposing a new program to provide direct legal representation to older foster children. Whatever happens in the end, this discussion is healthy.

It’s also the culmination of a decade of pent up disagreement about the direction of the GAL Program and how it can best serve children. That shouldn’t have happened. The statute creating the Program requires the executive director to be appointed every three years after publicly advertising the position and publicly interviewing the candidates. Every three years we should have heard competing visions of the Program and a transparent discussion of where it should go next. Instead, a (legally debatable) loophole in the statutory language permitted two governors in a row to re-appoint the current director without that public process. That turned policy into politics. There were people both in and out of the Program who would have applied. Instead many of them are now gone. (Confession: I’m not one of them. Running a statewide agency is not in my wheelhouse.)

Part of having a meaningful debate about the future of child representation in Florida requires having a shared understanding of the existing system. The GAL Program has done a masterful marketing job of making the term “guardian ad litem” synonymous with volunteer advocacy. That is only part of what the Program actually does. This post looks at something I’ve never seen publicly detailed before: how the GAL Program spends its money.

What does a guardian ad litem do in Florida?

It’s helpful to start with a reminder of what a guardian ad litem does in Florida dependency cases. The statutes say that GALs are appointed “to represent the best interest of the child,” but the law doesn’t provide much guidance as to what that means in practice. According to the statutes, GALs in dependency cases must (1) review DCF’s dispositional recommendations and changes in placement, (2) file a dispositional report, and (3) be present at all critical stages of a case or file a written report. GALs also must be appointed to TPR cases and file written recommendations that include the child’s wishes. They also have similar obligations as other parties, such as participating face-to-face in case plan hearings and maintaining confidentiality.

It’s important to say what is not in the statutes creating the guardian ad litem. There is no requirement that the GAL be a volunteer, that the GAL be represented by an attorney, or that the GAL do any independent investigation or appear in court except in TPR cases. The statutes even give the GAL the option of filing a written report of findings and recommendations in most situations. In theory, the statutory duties could be performed by a handful of staff or volunteers in each circuit doing file reviews and a specialized TPR team. This would not be a particularly good system, but it would be a legal one.

The GAL Program is not required by the law to have its current structure. It’s the result of policy choices by its leadership over the last 17 years. Listening to the public discussion this year, it seems the GAL Program has defined itself in four different ways:

A volunteer mentorship program. In hearings and op-eds, supporters of the Program have repeatedly pointed to examples of GALs serving as mentors for kids. We hear about the hours that the volunteers spend with the children, the miles driven, and the money spent. Someone even rhetorically asked at a hearing, “If children get attorneys instead, who will take them to get their hair cut?” The answer should be their foster parents, but that’s a different discussion.

A fact investigation program. The GAL Program talks a lot about the factual information brought to the court through its volunteers. This was the traditional function and major innovation of CASA in the early days. Volunteers had the time to go out and interview everyone, and then the time to sit in court until it was their turn to report. Today we have a lot more investigatory resources and reports coming to the court through professionals, but the barriers to everyone in a child’s life participating in hearings are still there.

A fundraising program. The GAL Program raises and spends money on material items that foster kids need, mostly through its direct support organizations. This includes normalcy items like clothes for prom and services like tutoring or therapy that aren’t covered by other funding sources. I want to note that they don’t pay for all kids’ needs — just the kids who are represented by the Program. I have made requests and been told no until the court appoints them to one of my clients.

A legal advocacy program. The GAL Program has lawyers, advocates in court, and does legal trainings and pro bono recruitment. (Their legal training materials are really good.) The Program doesn’t typically highlight this work when doing public outreach. I’ve spoken to people involved in marketing and fundraising for the Program who acknowledge that donors don’t feel warm and fuzzy about paying for lawyers and paralegals the way they feel about paying for prom dresses. Court puppies and mentorship moments bring in more money than depositions, no matter how outcome determinative they may be. The Program typically only focuses on its legal advocacy work when it is swatting away calls for children in foster care to get attorneys.

At one committee hearing, a speaker supporting the current GAL Program said it has always had to choose between quantity and quality — between representing all children poorly or representing some children very well. That seemed so reasonable at the time he said it: another underfunded charitable organization just trying to survive. Except that the GAL Program is not a charitable organization: it’s a $50 million per year government agency. And its budget tells a much more complex story about the choices that its leadership has made.

What does the Guardian ad Litem Program spend money on?

The OPPAGA report had a statistic that raised a lot of eyebrows, even from people who are supportive of the GAL Program in general. Since 2016 it has received 14% more money but managed to represent 3,500 fewer children. The Program has given no real explanation for the reduction. That high-profile supporter suggested that this was an intentional choice by the Program so that it could focus on higher quality advocacy. The law says that every child must have an advocate.

The OPPAGA report describes the multidisciplinary team model that the GAL Program uses on cases. It consists of a volunteer or a staff guardian, a child advocate manager, and a lawyer. OPPAGA did not give any information on whether this model was being implemented efficiently. The OPPAGA report includes a chart of comparable systems in other states. Florida’s GAL Program had 3.7 times the state funding as the next largest state (which was Texas, and most of its funding came from other sources). North Carolina, the state with a multidisciplinary model similar to ours, spent $986 per child compared to Florida’s $1,600. I have no idea if one program is better than the other, but the Florida GAL Program was supposed to be the model of cost effectiveness. This suggests there are other options out there worth exploring. These are the types of things we should talk openly about.

To begin to answer these questions, we need to know how the GAL Program spends its money. That’s what this post is about. As a caveat, I want to say that I’m not an accountant or an expert in public administration. My best party trick is making public records requests and colorful charts from the results. I hope someone with the right expertise takes a look at this and continues the conversation.

Here’s a little about the methodology I’ve used. I’ve made choices about how to group expenditures into categories to make them more understandable. I’m also including the expenditures by the direct support organizations (like the Guardian ad Litem Foundation or Voices for Children) because they fundraise on the name of the Program and fund positions and expenses for the Program. If anyone disagrees with this methodology, the source documents are all publicly available. The data in this post comes from the following places:

  • A public records request on the GAL Program’s expenditures by object code and category, for both general revenue and grants. I have this for fiscal years 2015-16 through 2019-20.
  • A public records request on the GAL Program’s FTE positions. I have two versions of this. One shows the available positions at the end of each fiscal year from 2016 to 2020. The other shows the active employees on February 1, 2020.
  • A review of the most recent available 990 tax forms for the direct support organizations that I could find. Some DSOs filed full 990s and others filed short forms, which limited the details available. I tried to use the same functional expenses categories for each, but I had to guess in some cases. The amount that I guessed on was less than 1% of the total budget.
  • The Department of Financial Services catalog of State Financial Assistance Programs.
  • Legislative appropriations.
  • GAL Program reports.

Let’s begin.

The basics

The GAL Program’s annual state appropriations have increased 512% since its creation. In 2003, it was appropriated $10.3 million. In 2020, the amount was $53.5 million. Budget negotiations for this year are not complete, but the House’s budget currently proposes $56.5 million and the Senate’s budget proposes $54.2 for the Program.

data source: DCF Dashboards, Florida Senate.

Over the same period of time, the number of positions at the GAL Program more than doubled from 320 at its lowest to 748 in 2020. As with any organization, not all positions are filled at any given time. The House’s budget this year proposes 759 FTEs, and the Senate’s budget proposes 723.

data source: DCF Dashboards, Florida Senate.

The GAL Program’s annual reports typically list a representation rate for that year. More recently the Program has issued performance reports. There’s no public repository of the historical reports, but some are available online. I’m not plotting this data because I have no way of saying how these rates were calculated or whether they used a consistent methodology year to year. The Program claims to have hit a rate of 84% in 2015, at the beginning of the latest expansion, and a recent low of 68% at the height of that expansion. OPPAGA put the rate at around 67%, which is why knowing the methodology is important.

The final group of expenditures is money raised by the Direct Support Organizations and grants received by the Program. The OPPAGA report shows that those funds have increased a lot over the last few years.

A word of caution about the DSOs, however. They raise money for the local programs, and Voices for Children in Miami is the bulk of that money. Voices for Children also receives over $900,000 in state financial assistance from the legislature to augment salaries the organization is paying at the Miami office. The DSO money is therefore not 100% donations.

So, increases across the board but lower representation rates. Where does the money go?

The expenditures

The next chart is the meat of this post. This is an approximation of the GAL Program’s expenditures for 2019-20 based on the records described above. I’ve added 30% to the salaries to account for benefits, which have been removed from the expenses group. OPS employees were converted to an FTE without benefits. I created six categories and tried to consolidate the expense codes as much as possible.

The chart accounts for approximately $53.8 million in GAL Program and DSO spending. About 62% of this pays for that three-person multidisciplinary team: 35% for recruitment, training, and management of volunteers; 21% for attorneys and legal costs; and 6% towards unknown salaries paid for by the DSOs, which I’ll assume go to front-line staff. The rest of the expenditures are local and statewide managerial positions, administrative support, normal organizational expenses like photocopying and insurance, and state financial grants to support two local programs: the Orange County program and Voices for Children in Miami.

Approximate GAL Program and related organizations expenditures in 2019-20.

What stands out to me is that the GAL Program could probably hit 100% representation if it would pick one thing and stick to it. I said I’m not a public administration expert, but the budgeting choices here seem fairly straightforward. The Program could be a traditional CASA program with money to spare by redirecting the legal staff, top-heavy managerial structure, and some of the administrative positions into recruitment and CAM positions. It could be a pretty large law firm with a more-manageable caseload if it redirected the CASA-model elements into attorneys and investigators (the GAL program attorneys currently handle 100+ cases, which is not good) and streamlined the managerial structure. Or maybe that high-profile supporter of the Program is correct and this is the necessary but imperfect balance of all the faces of the GAL Program. Could it be done better? I’m sure someone with more expertise than me could say. All I know is there is no lack of money to work with here.

Nobody is making a fortune either. Here is the state salary distribution. Bosses and lawyers get paid the most, with case management staff and then administrative staff making the least.

And finally here are the top 10 salaries in GAL-world. The highest paid employees are at Voices for Children in Miami, which also had the highest DSO expenditures and over $2 million in assets, so maybe this is defensible. Only two state employees make six figures, and only seven make more than $75,000.

NameTitleAnnual Rate
Nelson HincapieCEO of Voices for Children (Miami) $                          237,747
Tania RodriguezCOO of Voices for Children (Miami) $                          169,914
Alan AbramowitzExecutive Director $                          127,954
Dennis MooreGeneral Counsel $                          116,911
Kristen SolomonDirector of Operations $                            98,417
Debra ErvinAdministrative Services Director $                            90,413
Gregory RamseyChief Information Officer $                            89,673
Thomasina MooreGeneral Counsel $                            88,359
Amy FosterED at GAL Foundation Tampa Bay $                            77,962
Laurie BladesRegional Director $                            77,250
David WindleFinance and Budget Director $                            74,624

Most of the other 709 employees are paid significantly less. When I left the GAL Program in 2011 as a Senior Program Attorney I think I made around $47,000.

In the next sections, let’s take each of the groups above and look at them in more detail. We begin with the core of the CASA model.

Case Management

Since 2015, the GAL Program has spent approximately $66 million on case management. I’m including in this group the recruitment, training, and supervision of the volunteers. This also includes the CAMs who function as staff advocates and have their own case loads. The Program’s pay plan lists CAMs as either doing the job responsibilities directly or through volunteers.

Every CAM does the job differently, but the main function for those working with volunteers is to keep them on task. A CAM can spend significant time on the phone reminding volunteers about visits, upcoming court dates, and deadlines to submit drafts of reports. They spend time explaining administrative process (e.g., how home studies work) and investigation strategy (e.g., talk to the school counselor not just the principal). The CAMs typically edit the GAL reports submitted by volunteers or write them from scratch for volunteers who cannot or will not do the draft. CAMs go to court or participate in staffings sometimes, especially on contentious cases where the volunteer needs support. At the local level, the CAMs are supervised by the CAM IIs, Program Directors, and Circuit Directors.

About $5.5 million was spent on volunteer recruitment staff since 2015. Some of these staff are hired as OPS. Recruiters hold events in the community, field questions, and coordinate trainings. Turnover in volunteers is a constant for any organization that relies on them. The GAL Program advocacy snapshot for November 2020 showed that about 65% of certified volunteers were active. Coincidentally, that is the same percentage of children the Program represents — another opportunity to reach 100%.

Over time, expenditures on case management have gone up in large part due to a budget increase in 2017-18.

Despite the pay increase, FTEs for case management went down through 2018-19 and rebounded slightly in 2019-20.

Finally, looking only at 2019-20, the CAMs were largely hired in the last five years with a sizeable spike in the last two years. The CAM IIs follow a similar pattern, but there are a number of this group that has been with the Program since it was created in 2004. There are two employees in this group who have been with the Program since its time as a court program.

Lastly, pay for CAMs does increase with time, but really only for those who have been there 10+ years. The newer employees seem to have very flat pay tracks. Those two CAMs making close to $50k are in the 16th Circuit.

Legal Advocacy

Unlike the CAMs and CAM IIs, legal salaries are reversed. Most of the Program Attorneys are classified as “senior,” which comes with a pay bump. Legal expenses are a small portion of the budget, and only a few circuits have designated legal secretaries. In other circuits, administrative staff help with record pulls and filings.

The same decrease in FTEs is seen in the lawyers in 2018-19, before rebounding in 2019-20.

And there was a similar decrease in expenditures. It seems notable that litigation expenses decreased, too. Either those costs got picked up by a DSO or this reflects an intentional shift away from legal advocacy. I’d love to hear more about what happened there.

Most program attorneys were hired in the last few years, but there are some that have been with the Program since its creation. Senior Program Attorney status seems to be based on tenure, but there are two attorneys who may want to ask some questions.

Attorneys also see slightly higher pay over time, but again only if you’re in the right circuits. The rest are one two tracks: Attorney and Senior Attorney, with a few statewide lawyers handling appeals coming in higher.

Administrative Staff

The Program has spent about $24.5 million on administrative costs over the last 5 years. This group is actually three: statewide administrative staff like financial officers or information technology directors, local administrative staff like secretaries and assistants, and all the miscellaneous expenses that every organization has, like copy paper and maintenance. I’ve chosen to lump them together because all of these expenses provide support to the core mission of the Program without providing managerial or front-line services. The bulk of this group is the salary for local administrative staff.

The administrative FTEs saw a drop in 2017-18, mostly at the local level.

There was also a dip in expenditures in this group.

Most administrative staff were hired in the past few years, but some have been with the Program since its creation.

The local administrative salaries show less stratification. The range from from $25k to $40k is not huge, but at least there’s hope of a raise over time.

Managerial Staff

The Program has spent about $23 million on managerial staff since 2015. The Program has a lot of bosses. On the case management side, there are local program directors, local circuit directors, regional directors, and statewide program directors. The legal side is a bit thinner with managing attorneys in each circuit, regional legal counsels, and two statewide general counsels.

Interestingly, there wasn’t a decrease in managerial staff in 2018-19 like we saw in case management and legal.

And there was only a slight decrease in expenditures on management over that time.

Finally, the date of hire for the managerial staff is significantly different than front line and administrative staff. The management, especially the circuit directors, have been around a lot longer — many since the beginning and about half since before the hire of the current Executive Director in 2010. I’ve added labels for the circuit numbers just to show the distribution.

Everything over Time

When you put that all together, you can see the efforts of the Program over time. It did expand expenditures on case management and legal. It managed to keep most other categories constant. Yet it still represented 3,500 fewer children.

However, not every circuit saw the same increases over those years. The largest increase was in Circuit 7 (Flagler, Putnam, St. Johns, Volusia), and neighboring Circuit 18 (Brevard, Seminole). Some circuits came out pretty even. Circuit 16 (Monroe) was the only circuit to lose state funding during this process.

Here are the changes by each group. The changes were largely seen in case management and legal.


Nothing in these numbers explains why the GAL Program represented 3,500 fewer children over the last four years. The existential question for the Program’s leadership going forward is whether they can actually accomplish the goal of 100% representation. Throwing money at it doesn’t seem to be working. It may be time to try something new.

What I'm Reading

OPPAGA’s Report on the GAL Program is Not Good

Back in 2019, which feels like a decade ago, I wrote on this blog about the ethics and efficacy of the Guardian ad Litem Program. I started that post by dismissing what I viewed as ridiculous arguments that attorneys at the Program were somehow engaged in unethical behavior because of their client’s marketing slogan, “We represent the best interests of the child.” I found those arguments both incorrect and insulting to the attorneys who faithfully represent the Program in its efforts to help kids. (I was one of those attorneys once and it is a hard job to do well. More on that below.) But I also thought the Program’s slogan was intentionally misleading and chosen for the main purpose of crowding out funding for attorneys for kids. The word “represent” is the problem: lawyers and law firms represent people, government programs and non-lawyers do not. Just pick another verb. There’s nothing wrong with “advocating” for children.

The second half of the post was about the GAL Program’s efficacy. Leadership at the Program had ramped up their rhetorical attacks on attorneys for kids, claiming that attorneys were dangerous because they would thoughtlessly advocate for children to return to unsafe homes or would keep insidious secrets from the court because a 4-year-old put her finger over her mouth and went “shush.” Neither of those scenarios are based in reality: attorneys have as much an obligation to counsel their clients as they do to advocate for them, and children aren’t particularly discerning in who they tell things to. Attorneys also have an ethical obligation to the courts to only raise meritorious claims, which includes only advocating for reunification when the attorney believes the facts and law would support it — i.e., when it’s safe. Maybe that includes situations where the GAL and DCF disagree, but also maybe the state agencies err too far in the other direction and keep kids in care who could really go home. It’s ultimately up to a judge to decide based on the evidence, but the judge can’t decide if nobody puts the facts before them. If an attorney felt the child was asking for something the law or facts would not support, the attorney should counsel the child away from the position or withdraw. End of ethical dilemma.

The GAL Program, however, went even further in its rhetoric. Not only were lawyers for kids bad, according to their press releases and public statements, but a system of community volunteers with 40 hours of training, no prior relationship to a child they see once a month, and a staff turnover rate on par with retail clothing stores was categorically and mathematically superior to any imaginable alternative. They had charts and graphs to prove it. This was just too much. In the post, I went through the Program’s performance report numbers and showed that there were no correlations between their main measure — the percentage of kids with a GAL appointed in each circuit — and any of their reported circuit-wide outcomes. I played with controlling for socioeconomics and demographics in the circuits and got some weak correlations here and there, but not in the positive direction that the GAL Program was claiming. The end result was that their numbers didn’t show anything at all. They’re just colorful charts.

And colorful charts are wonderful things, except that those particular charts had captured over $600 million in funding based on a promise of outcomes that weren’t supported by any evidence. It was a blog post. I got it off my chest and moved on.

Then the Florida Legislature asked OPPAGA to do the analysis for real.

OPPAGA report banner
OPPAGA report header. Click here to read full report.

The GAL Program’s Structure

OPPAGA is the Office of Program Policy Analysis and Government Accountability. One of its jobs is to assess the functioning of Florida’s government agencies. The report, which came out in December 2020, is long and thorough. The focus is on how the Florida Guardian ad Litem Program is run, its structure and efficiency. Some of the report’s conclusions about the Program were good — or at least not bad. OPPAGA’s staff found the following:

  • The GAL Program follows national standards on best interest representation using a unique multidisciplinary team.
  • National organizations and the academic literature recommend attorney representation for kids in dependency proceedings. Using lay volunteers is not an evidence-based practice and has shown mixed or no results in studies on things like permanency outcomes and time in care.
  • The GAL training is good, but some stakeholders wish it would focus more on educating volunteer GALs about “the realities of foster care and challenges of disadvantaged parents.” Some GAL local programs wish they had more budget for training.
  • The Program represents about two-thirds of kids in the system with wide variations among circuits.
  • Stakeholder views on the Program’s efficacy split among groups in the system. Judges thought they were efficient and effective due to their use of volunteers and the value of best interest advocacy in general. Attorneys in the system thought the volunteers lacked expertise and too often joined the Department’s positions on issues. Everyone commended the volunteers for stepping up and trying to help.

It doesn’t appear that OPPAGA was tasked with looking into any of the other structural questions that often swirl around the Program, such as whether a GAL should be a separate party or derive party status from the child. The big question — about who the Program’s attorneys represent — was answered clearly. They represent the Program.

Another big structural question not explicitly discussed in the report can be found in OPPAGA’s data. This question involves the feasibility of reaching 100% representation with a volunteer model. The report data suggest that this will never happen. The report finds that state funding for the Program has increased about 20% over the last 5 years, which has increased the number of staff but not the number of volunteers. Despite the rise in funding and staff, the number of children served by the Program has actually gone down. The core performance measure of the Program is the representation rate. Going down is bad.

The report’s data even brings the “number of children served” measure into question because the Program (discussed below) discharges off of so many cases before their conclusion that it’s not a meaningful measure unless you start using fractions. If we instead counted the number of days children spent in care with a GAL, it would be far more accurate and a smaller representation rate than is currently reported. All in all, the report does not seem to support increasing the GAL budget for the goal of increasing volunteer representation. We may have reached the natural limit of what volunteer-based representation can accomplish. And I think that’s good to acknowledge.

The Problem was Outcomes

OPPAGA’s main point of criticism was how the GAL Program measures and reports its outcomes. First, the GAL Program’s performance data includes circuit-wide measures that do not separate outcomes for children with and without a GAL. It’s therefore impossible to say whether any noted difference was an effect of the GAL Program’s efforts or just a circuit-wide variation. In OPPAGA’s language, the performance measures “may not be indicative of the program’s actual performance.”

What we need for analysis is child-specific data so that we can compare outcomes in light of case and child factors. OPPAGA attempted to compare data from the GAL Program, DCF, and the OSCA (the statewide court administration). This was a struggle because, as they wrote:

quote from OPPAGA report: "A unified data set that combines GAL case information with DCF child welfare outcomes does not exist."

Even more problematic for analysis, the GAL Program was unable to provide any of the raw data to OPPAGA. I quote: “When OPPAGA requested that program staff export all raw program data for Fiscal Year 2015-16 through Fiscal Year 2019-20, program staff was only able to provide a vendor programmed report, which made it difficult to determine the completeness and accuracy of the data and hindered analysis.”

Wait, what?

A quick web search shows that the vendor in this case is Evinto Solutions, LLC., an Arizona company that maintains the Optima database portal. The GAL Program pays Evinto $7,000 a month for access to the website and storage of the case data. I don’t understand how the data would not be available because the contract, which is available online, has the same clause that every state contract must have: the vendor must maintain public records and provide the customer with a copy of any requests “within a reasonable time” at a cost that is set by law. The deidentified records of a public agency that describe how it handles cases is undeniably a public record. If the GAL Program asked for the data and was told no, then Evinto was in breach of their contract. If the GAL Program never asked for the data, then they stonewalled OPPAGA. There is no good scenario in which the Program cannot access (or understand, as OPPAGA found) its own data.

OPPAGA found other problems with the data, too. There were no unique identifiers for each child in the reports and some data entries were clearly wrong (such as having conflicting dates). As such, they had to rely on the DCF and OSCA databases, and were only able to match up about 80% of kids to the GAL data. This means it’s not a representative sample — it’s just the best sample we’ve got. Those GAL Program performance reports that I said in 2019 had no correlation with outcomes also had no verifiable correlation with reality. This is very, very bad.

A few things jumped out at me in the report, based on what OPPAGA could figure out:

  1. The GAL Program discharged from 20% of cases because the child was in a stable placement, meaning the case hadn’t closed yet. That number has trended slightly up. Most of those cases ended in adoptions but many did not.
  2. About 5% of cases closed because of insufficient GAL Program resources.
  3. About 9% of cases were closed because the child ran away, moved to another circuit, or the case was consolidated by the court.

Permanency and time-to-exit are the GAL Program’s main system outcome measures in its reports, and the Program discharged from a third of cases before they even closed. That suggests the representation rate is even lower than reported and the supposed impact is even more tenuous. This is also very bad.

The rest of the report relays stakeholder views. One theme stood out to me, because I remember it well from my time at the Program: scheduling around volunteers’ time is hard and causes delays in staffings, hearings, and outcomes. I promise you that for every week shaved off one case through zealous advocacy, a month was added to another case because a volunteer could only attend court to do MBI testimony on Tuesdays after 2:00. Maybe Zoom has fixed some of that, but there are real drawbacks to having a part-time volunteer workforce.

The rest of the stakeholder views were mixed, with this conclusion statement:

What’s missing: $60 million a year

I wish the report had looked at how the Program spends its funds. You have to go down to the exhibits at the end of the report to find this information: Florida spends over $60 million per year on CASA/GAL services, almost twice what the next-highest state reviewed by OPPAGA (Texas) spends, six times the median total funding amount, and 20 times the median state funding amount. Our state expenditure per child ($1,354) is significantly more than the state with the next highest state funding outlay, North Carolina ($859 per child) and the state with the next highest number of children served, Texas ($447 per child). And again that is likely an underestimate because the Florida GAL does not stay on all cases all the way through.

I don’t know where the money goes, but I do know where it doesn’t: despite years of increased funding, the GAL Program has intentionally underpaid staff since its creation. That’s had serious implications for children. The Program submitted a budget request in 2017-18 asking for more money to pay its employees, writing: “the Guardian ad Litem pay has remained at low levels, due to a focus on expanding staff to serve rising numbers of dependent children (rather than pay raises).” It listed its CAMs as making $31,459 per year and its attorneys as making $41,267. That’s below the DCF payrates and below the HUD cutoff for low-income in most metropolitan areas in Florida. They wrote the following in the budget request:

GAL Program budget request quote: 12% of staff had been on public assistance in 2014 and turnover rates for non-senior staff were all 50% or higher.

Twelve percent of staff were on public benefits and the turnover rate was over 50% for anyone not in a senior position. I can’t get over that the highest turnover was for the volunteer recruiters — the engine of a CASA program. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, these rates are equivalent to the retail and construction industries, while state government jobs have a typical turnover rate of 19%. The Secretary of DCF testified in a senate committee on January 12 (at timestamp 1:18) that DCF’s turnover rate for child protective investigators (an incredibly stressful job) was 43%. The OPPAGA report doesn’t address turnover directly, but does state that four GAL volunteers they interviewed reported “many of the supervisors [i.e., CAMs] appear to be overworked.” I feel uncomfortable using the budget request in a negative light, since the GAL Program got the extra money for salaries that year and they’ve made addressing staffing instability part of the Program’s long-range plan — but the numbers show the Program has a serious workforce problem and they acknowledge it impacts kids.

I’ve never seen a full expenditure report for the GAL Program and its support organizations. I’ve requested financial records from the Program but am still waiting for the response as of writing this post. Looking around the internet it seems that they advocated for and got over $300,000 per year to reimburse volunteers for mileage and have engaged in lots of extraneous activities (scholarships, internships, lobbying, very large statewide conferences that I’ve definitely been to) that are not part of the core mission of representing kids. That doesn’t include the in-kind donations and events that are meant to reward volunteers for being volunteers, with no direct benefit to the children. Those are wonderful things to do, but not while also complaining that you don’t have the funds to do the actual job or pay your employees enough to stay.

Meanwhile, along with low staff pay comes very hard work. You are told that your purpose is to save lives and protect children, and that weighs on you constantly. The report notes in a footnote that the expected caseload for GAL Program attorneys is 150 children. And, according to the 2017 budget request, there’s no official paralegal position for support (we had wonderful paralegals in Miami). It’s very difficult to do a good job under those circumstances, and when the job is “don’t let kids die,” it feels impossible. It is no surprise that nearly two-thirds of attorneys leave. I hope the pay increase reduced that number significantly.

I’m bringing up the budget because federal law changed in 2018 to permit the federal reimbursement of up to 50% of state expenditures on “independent legal representation by an attorney for a child who is a candidate for title IV-E foster care or in foster care.” You can read more about it here. The funding is triggered by having an attorney represent the child and includes funding for paralegals, investigators, and social worker supports, which would include CAMs. The GAL Program in its current structure has already been deemed ineligible for that funding. The OPPAGA report again makes clear that the GAL attorney represents the Program, not the child. Until we fix that, we are leaving millions of dollars on the table and our best shot at 100% representation.

Let’s talk about alternatives

OPPAGA staff made a few recommendations which, in analyst-speak, they called “options.” The options included choosing concrete performance measures like other states have, using the DCF-assigned ID numbers for each child to aid in cross-reports, and gaining a better understanding of the Program’s own data. These are all fine, but they don’t address the core problem facing the Program: 100% representation of foster kids by unpaid volunteers is not sustainable, and the Program has scraped by for nearly two decades unsuccessfully attempting to reach that goal.

The GAL Program agrees that resolving the problem of 100% representation is critical to its continuing survival. In its current long-range plan, it writes:

Once the high turnover is addressed, the program will then address a key policy decision with the Office of the Governor and the Legislature; that is, 1) whether the program should request additional resources to pursue representation of all children in the dependency system (out of-home and all in their own home), or 2) work with the Legislature to limit its statutory mandate to representing only children in out-of-home care and children 0 to 3 years living in their own homes (as current funding levels permit).

Statewide Guardian ad Litem Office Long Range Program Plan for FY 2017-18 to 2021-22.

The Program has also publicly acknowledged that, in its current form, it is not able to fully advocate for the children it represents. In 2019 the Program lobbied against a foster children’s bill of rights that would have clarified the rights children have in care and required the system educate kids on those rights. In its legislative analysis, the Program wrote that if the bill of rights passed into law the Program would need significantly more funding because it “will be advocating for children’s rights in a more expansive way than it is currently doing now.” It warned that the courts and other parties would likely also see a workload increase — and I agree that would probably be true until those parties stopped violating children’s rights.

The Program’s quiet campaign to kill the bill of rights was a huge disappointment to me, even if they saw it as an act of survival. Even more than the public jabs at attorneys for kids, the Program’s bill of rights analysis convinced me that its current structure was at odds with the rights and wellbeing of children. I don’t fault the people at the Program who are doing the work on the ground at all, but I do fault people who have vehemently argued for this status quo for years even when it’s clear it’s bad for children — namely all the children receiving no or weakened representation. The Program was asked to do the impossible, and nearly 20 years of experimentation is enough. Given the changes in federal funding, it is time to address that “key policy decision” of how to move forward to 100% representation of children.

Here are my views.

I believe 100% representation can only come through 100% funding of paid positions. Volunteers have an important role in working with children, but federal law and the needs of children demand 100% representation first and foremost. Federal funding is available to finally make that a reality.

To lock down the federal funding, the attorneys must represent the children and not the Program. This means the attorneys’ primary obligations are to the child and not to a government agency. This is actually a very good thing because the Rules of Professional Responsibility will require the attorneys to hold themselves, the system and even the GALs accountable to the children they serve. (Just look at the nonsense in Pasco for an example of why the Program should not be the client.)

Attorney representation does not mean the end of best interest representation. I support a hybrid model of child representation with GALs directing the attorney’s representation for young children using a best interests model (with a healthy dose of taking the child’s attachments and wishes into account) and kids directing their own representation when they’re old enough to function as a client (with a healthy dose of mentoring and counseling from the attorney and their former GAL). We can fight about where to draw the age line. I’m also open to expanding the universe of people who can serve as a GAL and relying more on the natural advocates in children’s lives like relatives, foster parents, and fictive kin who could fill the role. This could reduce the number of volunteers needed significantly.

Once the Program is not the titular party in every dependency case in Florida (or 65% of cases for 70% of the time at less than 100% advocacy?), we need to re-align the Program’s goals into something human beings can actually do to provide direct and tangible benefits to children. OPPAGA recommends setting real measures, and I think we should go further and re-task the GAL Program back to its roots as a support for GALs and custodians. And we should get GALs out of the opinion business and give them concrete objectives to accomplish to further the best interests of the child. They can testify about their opinion on the same terms as anyone else under the rules of evidence. The quality of their advocacy should be judged by what they do.

There should be process goals for GAL Program, like “ensure children have representation for 98% of days under DCF supervision,” “ensure children are seen in person every 30 days,” “report to the court factual observations in writing,” and “provide child welfare policy guidance to the child, GAL, and custodian regarding the case.” The measures would then be the percent of days in care a child had representation, percent of visits that were timely made, the number of reports or motions filed, and the number of hours spent educating custodians and children about the system.

There should be advocacy goals for the individual GALs in conjunction with the child’s attorney like “ensure school services are in place,” “ensure receipt of all entitled public benefits,” “coordinate therapeutic and medical services to optimize benefit and minimize duplication of services,” and “eliminate barriers to the current permanency goal and advocate to change the goal when appropriate.” You could measure that by logging referrals and linkage to services, counting participation in IEP meetings and due process complaint hearings, summing the actual dollar amounts in public benefits received as a result of the advocacy, and measuring case plan amendments and other permanency advocacy efforts. None of these goals should change once the child is old enough to direct the representation — the work just gets harder because it also involves counseling the child towards good decisions in each of these areas.

Next, maybe outcome measures aren’t the right test. I am more skeptical of outcome measures than most people seem to be. I’ve spent a lot of time working with time-to-exit and permanency rates in the DCF data and there is wide variation in case outcomes by the age of the child at removal, type of maltreatment, race and ethnicity of the child, availability of relative placements, geography, and an unknown number of other salient factors. Very few empirical studies have managed to isolate the impact of representation on these types of outcomes, and that may be because every case is just unique. I prefer measures that are directly related to advocacy goals like described above or the child well-being measures that other states use. If people want to measure outcomes then we will need to start keeping much better data.

I have thoughts about how the GAL functions on individual cases, including how a GAL is selected and discharged, their ethical relationship to the child’s attorney, and other mechanisms that would hold the GAL and attorney accountable to the child and the court at a higher level. I’ll leave those for another day.

Florida has come a long way in its child advocacy, and there is a path to finally reach the goal of 100% representation. I hope we can have a meaningful conversation about how to give every foster child in Florida a legal advocate who can help guide and protect them through the system and make their lives materially better.

Charts & Graphs

I never want to write about COVID again

I wrote last month that if there wasn’t a big jump in the number of kids being removed by October (the typical high-point in Fall removals) then I was going to call the COVID prophecies bunk. And here we are with the October data and…nothing. The October removal numbers came in lower than expected.

[November update: I’m not doing a whole new post for November, because there’s still no surge. You can see the dashboard here.]

Below are the numbers for January 2014 to October 2020, taken right from the DCF dashboards. The grey line is a trend line that calculates the median value for +/- 6 months. And, seriously, if you didn’t know there was a global pandemic that had locked down entire countries, closed schools, and possibly changed the course of history, you certainly wouldn’t have guessed it based on these charts (and I even highlighted COVID for you). The child welfare system experienced some shocks at the beginning, but for the most part it adapted and carried on.

Below is the exact same set of numbers with the normal seasonal variations taken out. This lets you see what is unusual. You can see that abuse calls in April 2020 were unseasonably low, but they got back up there. If you look at Hurricane Irma in 2017, you’ll see that the whole system took a pause — calls, removals, and discharges were all lower that month. But the pandemic seems to have only temporarily reduced calls, delayed some exits to September 2020, and pushed removals into an abnormal pattern that is reflected by that saw-tooth line starting around September 2019. What COVID didn’t do: impact the out-of-home care population hardly at all.

It looks like discharges had a rebound in September, clearing out cases that had stalled due to lack of court and closed services. You can see the bump in all three types below: reunifications (17%), adoptions (34%), and guardianship (27%). The adoption number should be put into context, though — the adoption trend line is dropping, suggesting things are slowing down, but only time will tell if that trend continues.

If I were to write a short factual statement on how COVID affected Florida’s statewide numbers, it would be this:

Florida’s been in a very gradual contraction period for a few years, due in large part to a reduction in the number of kids entering the system. The trend was 1,428 kids removed per month in February 2016 and 1,128 in February 2020. When COVID hit, removals got thrown off their normal schedules, but the trend line remained the same. Discharges had been very stable before COVID and were slightly down going into 2020. COVID dropped discharges a lot more, from about 1,100 per month to 960 per month. We saw a huge spike in discharges in September, but we need to do more to get the trendline back up.

Not everywhere in Florida had the same experience

Florida’s system is a patchwork of community based care agencies, and they rarely move in lockstep. Some agencies did in fact experience dips and surges not seen in the statewide numbers. I made a charts for each of the 19 CBCs. And, I’ve included a short factual statement you can make about each of them based on the numbers. The big takeaway is that across the state COVID had way more impact on discharges than removals, but mostly it had little effect at all on the out-of-home care population. (A more sophisticated analysis would look at the demographics and reasons kids came into care during COVID and test for shifts there — this is not that.)

If you want to go through the data in more detail (down to the county level), you can do so at this dashboard I made.

One important note: COVID significantly affected the quality of life of kids and families in the system by denying in-person visits, reducing court access, closing schools, and a million other ways. The DCF dashboard numbers don’t measure those things. These charts are only about how COVID affected the core system metrics of removals, discharges, and overall population.

Another important note: I’m not including the hotline calls for two reasons. First, DCF does not report hotline calls by CBC, so the info is not readily available. Second, the number of hotline calls have very low (almost no) correlation to actual removals.

AgencyWhat that agency can probably say about the data
Big Bend CBCWe’ve been in a slow expansion for years, but our removal and discharge rates have remained fairly constant. COVID rose our removals a little, but not much. Our discharges have always been slow, but they picked up in this summer in small part because we entered more guardianships than usual. Our rising out-of-home care population trend hasn’t changed.
Brevard Family PartnershipWe’ve been in an expansion period since 2018. Our removal numbers are normally pretty volatile from month to month, but the overall trend has been stable over the years. COVID may have raised our removal trend from 46 to 54 kids per month starting in August, but it’s too early to tell if that will last. We had low discharge rates before COVID (34 per month) and really struggled with reunifications at the beginning through September. We may be back on track.
ChildNet BrowardWe’ve been in a contraction since 2016, and our removal rate has been decreasing throughout that time. Removals came in really low at the beginning of the summer, but rebounded in July and seem back on track. Reunifications over the summer stalled a bit, but overall things have been stable.
ChildNet Palm BeachThe pandemic hit at an odd time for us. We had a small expansion from October 2019 to November 2020 and were already clearing that out when COVID struck. Removals had already been down since December 2019 (60 per month) and stayed low after that (52 per month), with a small bump in June. Discharges have steadily decreased and COVID didn’t really change that.
Children’s Network of SW FloridaWhat pandemic? Our removal trend numbers haven’t budged since 2018 and discharges have been steady for a year. We reunified a bunch of kids in April and lagged a little on guardianships and adoptions, but it all came out in the wash. Especially since we did a ton of adoptions in October.
Citrus Family Care NetworkWe’ve been in a contraction period for about five years, so when our removals came in low at the beginning of summer it wasn’t that unusual (they were about 10 removals under the trend, so…). The dip was mostly seen in teenagers. COVID really mucked up our discharge patterns, mostly by shifting adoptions into months we don’t normally see many of those.
Communities Connected for KidsOur numbers have been going down for about a year, largely by reducing removals and keeping our discharge rate very constant. COVID didn’t really change any of that, except maybe reunifications have been experiencing starts and stops. We didn’t do any adoptions in March and they’ve been a little lower (6 per month lower) since the pandemic. On the flip side, we normally do about 1 guardianship a month and since COVID we’re up to 5.
Community Partnership for ChildrenWe’ve had very stable out-of-home care numbers since about October 2018. Removal numbers stayed constant through COVID, but our discharge rate took a huge hit starting in July, mostly as a result of reduced guardianships and adoptions. The result was that our out-of-home care count trended up for the first time in a while.
Eckerd Community AlternativesWe have been in a very slow expansion for a long time. That was flattening out slightly before the pandemic, but COVID sped it up. Removals continued to trend down. Discharges were slower over the summer, but shot up in September and October. The result was that our out-of-home care numbers trended down for the first time in a while.
Eckerd Community HillsboroughAfter a very large expansion, our numbers have been flat since 2017. Removals had trended down for that whole time, but there was a spike in June and July during the pandemic. We’re still waiting to see if that’s a blip or changes our direction. We had a significant pause in reunifications in August, with a sharp rebound in September. Our trend line on discharges is still decreasing.
Embrace FloridaWe’ve been in a very slow expansion for a few years now. COVID hit our removal numbers hard — down 44% in April — but then reverted back to the trendline by June. Exits have slowed very slightly. We were able to keep reunifications moving, but adoptions were a little up and down. The pandemic had almost no effect on our number of kids in care.
Families First NetworkThe pandemic took time to affect us. At first, our removals were pretty normal, a little lower at the beginning and then a little higher in the summer, but nothing out of the ordinary. Recently they dropped a lot. We’ll have to wait and see if that’s a blip. Our exits were fairly stable overall, but reunifications definitely were up and down a lot more than normal. Adoptions and guardianships were fairly normal (except that we did zero guardianships in March), but then dropped in October. Something seems to be slowing us down.
Family Integrity ProgramWe’re a very small CBC, so our trendline numbers are always less stable than larger areas. We entered the pandemic on a downswing in out-of-home care population, but our numbers went back up through the summer and might even be decreasing again. Removals were pretty normal at the beginning of COVID, but dropped off significantly after a spike in June. Discharges — especially reunifications — were very slow until August and seem to have leveled off a bit.
Family Support ServicesOur out-of-home care numbers have been stable for years, and then the pandemic hit. It didn’t affect our removals much, but discharges took a dive from about 55 per month to 36 per month. We have only rarely used guardianships since July 2017, and COVID didn’t change that (like in other areas). We reunified a lot of kids in April, but then the numbers went down. We kept our adoptions up (no surprise), but they’ve dropped slightly since August. The result is that our out-of-home care numbers are trending up for the first time in a while.
Heartland for ChildrenUnlike a lot of other areas, COVID did reduce our removals from 65 per month to about 43 per month. The biggest drops were in ages 1-4 and 5-12. Our discharges became a lot more erratic, but we’ve managed to maintain our trendline of 61 per month. (We did a ton of guardianships right at the beginning of the pandemic that cleared out a lot.) As a result, our out-of-home care numbers are going down for the first time in years.
Kids CentralWe had a small contraction starting around June 2019, but it had already begun slowing due to reduced discharges. That didn’t change in COVID. What did change was our removals — they went up for the first time in a while, which means our out-of-home care numbers are going up, too. Only time will tell how permanent this is.
Kids First of FloridaWe are a smaller CBC, so we see a lot more movement in our trends than larger areas. We had a small expansion through 2019 that had mostly cleared out when COVID struck. Despite coming in a little low during March and April, our removal trends stayed the same at 15 per month. But, our discharges dropped from 16 per month to 12 per month. That was enough to slightly raise our out-of-home care number. Only time will tell if that’s permanent or a blip.
Partnership for Strong FamiliesWe’ve been in an expansion since 2019, largely because our discharge trend dropped a ton at the end of the year from 52 per month to 36 per month. (That had nothing to do with COVID.) Removals have trended up slightly, but really it’s the discharges that are driving our numbers right now. We cleared out 55 kids in September, mostly backlogged adoptions and guardianships, but that wasn’t enough to move the trend.
Sarasota Y / Safe Children CoalitionOur numbers have been remarkably stable over the last four years and COVID didn’t really change that. We removed way more kids than expected in March, but removals were fairly stable after that. Discharges were somewhat low during the summer, but rose a little by Fall. Adoptions have fallen off slightly, and our reunification rate has become somewhat erratic.
Data source: Florida DCF Dashboards.

I started this post a few days ago and hoped it would be my last COVID post. But with the numbers going up and states entering back into lockdowns I’m worried I’ll be staring at these numbers for a long time to come. Be safe.

Charts & Graphs

What COVID did and didn’t do to Florida’s Foster Care System

I haven’t written about the COVID numbers for a few months because there hasn’t been much new to say. We’ve needed more time to tell if the initial shocks in April were a blip or a new normal. We now have 6 months of data to compare and the answer looks pretty clear to me.

It also looks pretty clear to DCF, which tweeted out this thank you to teachers for calling in more cases on kids.

That’s a very odd thing to thank people for, along the lines of “thanks for calling 911!” or “thanks for reporting so many forest fires that we investigated and discovered were not actually a fire at all!”

Before we get to the numbers, a quick reminder that foster care numbers are time-series data, along the lines of the stock market, ice cream sales, and average temperatures. Here are three important components of time-series data that this post will reference:

  1. The seasonal ups and downs are the changes that happen, on average, every year at around the same time. For example, an ice cream stand may do 250% more business every summer, and the firecracker industry may have two or three spikes per year. When you’re interested in what’s normal, the seasonality is interesting. When you want to measure what is abnormal (like a pandemic) you remove the seasonal variation from the data to get a smoother graph and a clearer picture.
  2. The long-term trend is also measured and removed. If ice cream sales have been going up 10% a year for the last decade, that is interesting but should be factored out when determining whether you had a good month. In the child welfare graphs below I’ve used a 12-month median to determine the trend line. A smaller window would result in a jumpier line, and a bigger window would give a smoother line.
  3. If you take out the seasonal and long-term trends, you’re left with the remainder amount. This shows how far the value is outside of what you expected. If you’re asking whether something was an anomaly, you could look here to see if anything stands out. The graphs below look for spikes that are four or more standard deviations from the mean. That means they are very, very unlikely to be normal variations.

So now, with six months under our belts (masks?), let’s see what the numbers show. The full dashboard down to the county level is here. This post is a summary of the statewide numbers.

First, something that the pandemic impacted a lot: institutional abuse reports

If you believe in a direct correlation between abuse calls and safety, then the lockdown orders undeniably made one set of kids safer: the 500-600 kids per month who are allegedly abused by their schools, daycares, summer camps, churches, and other institutional caretakers. This isn’t a situation where the numbers dipped because of a lack of “eyes on the child.” The “eyes” are the abusers in these cases.

Below you can see that the number of institutional abuse reports was down 58% in April 2020, 44% in May, and then started to rebound. The trend line (in blue) had been pretty steady since 2014, and may have even started dipping a little in 2019. The pandemic significantly changed the trend — and I suspect the number won’t completely rebound because fewer people are sending their kids to institutional care settings.

The reduction in calls on children in their homes wasn’t nearly as drastic

Looking at the institutional abuse calls puts the in-home abuse calls into better perspective. Yes, they went down in April (24%) and May (13%) but then they headed back up. The trend line wasn’t much bothered by these dips. I’d call this a V-shaped recovery. The next six months will tell whether that slight increase in September is just a rebound or a new trend. The pandemic dip was a blip.

A trend that wasn’t affected at all: removals

The number of removals per month has trended down since 2016. During that period the largest single month decrease was September 2017 during Hurricane Irma (down 19%). April 2020 came close (down 15%). By summer, though, removals were back above the trend line. And most importantly, the trend line itself didn’t budge.

This is the time to mention that the child welfare system is very bad at its core job of identifying and getting help for kids who need it. The system relies on citizen reporters, as opposed to, say, random home checks of everyone with kids or, say, having such amazing services that people voluntarily call for help instead of having to be sued by the state to accept it (imagine!). These reporters notoriously over-report cases in some communities and under-report them in others. Even the cases that are reported typically don’t result in a removal (only 5-6 removals per 100 alleged victims), and somewhere between 40-50% of investigations result in no indicators of child maltreatment all. Investigating those cases is a waste of time, results in needless trauma to the family, and takes away resources and attention from kids who really need help.

So how did calls to the abuse hotline go down but removals not budge? One possible explanation is that the calls that got skipped would have largely fallen into the “no findings” group. Another explanation could be that DCF weakened its risk thresholds and removed kids who normally they would not have. Yet a third possibility is that the lower investigation caseloads resulted in deeper investigations and kids being removed who would have been overlooked before.

It could be some combination of all three.

There’s some evidence that DCF’s risk threshold changed. For example, removals in April 2020 decreased most for kids aged 5-12 and 13-17. The same level of decrease didn’t happen for newborns or toddlers. These removals were based on calls made in February and March, before the pandemic , so you can’t blame the callers on this one. The investigators’ decision making seems to have change. Teens had a very sharp rebound in June that wasn’t seen in the other age groups.

Below you can also see that neglect-type maltreatments (e.g., inadequate supervision and housing) saw greater decreases — relative to their normal ups and downs — than abuse-type harms. Some maltreatment removals rebounded over the summer (e.g., sexual and physical abuse), and some saw very little change over time at all (e.g., drug abuse and domestic violence). Not shown here, domestic violence removals went up a little in the Northeast Region and stayed flat everywhere else.

I should note that removals typically rise 7% in October and then are down through the end of the year. If the predicted wave of removals doesn’t appear by October, I don’t think it’s ever happening.

Discharges are more complicated

The discharge rate has been very flat for a while. It arguably started trending downward in mid-2019 and continued trending downward through the pandemic. You can see some green spikes that look like corrections but the general trend is downward.

Breaking that into exit types, reunifications trended downward and hit their lowest point in May when most courts were shut down (down 20%). They were then down all summer. There appears to be a U-shaped rebound, but we won’t know for sure until we get more information.

Guardianships took a huge hit in March when courts first closed down, but have more or less corrected. Guardianships have been on a downward slide for a while (which I think is very bad policy), and the pandemic didn’t do anything to change that.

Adoptions took a big enough dive to affect their trend line, going from about 321 per month to 243 per month. We need more time to see whether the correction is U-shaped or whether we get a new normal L.

Well-being measures mostly improved

If you thought the pandemic would lead to worse well-being measures in foster care, you would have been wrong. Most of the measures have actually improved, with the slight exception of the number of kids getting timely dental care.

And this next one is my favorite, so I’m showing the graph. The statewide number of placement moves per 1,000 bed days in out-of-home care was the lowest it’s ever been (3.53). Black children had the most stability they’ve seen in the last 13 years (3.9) and the pandemic erased an 8-year trend of increasing instability for Black children in care. It’s not surprising that making caregivers bear more costs from placement instability (i.e., risks to their own health) and reducing placement departments’ willingness to accept placement change requests had a net positive effect for kids.

So that’s it. The pandemic didn’t crash the system. It made some of it better. One more month like this and I think we can call it stabilized.

Charts & Graphs

COVID Month 4: Still no removal wave, but discharges are struggling

Accepted initial family investigations by month over time.

Florida DCF’s numbers are out for June and, in terms of investigations and removals, they were spectacularly normal. The predicted wave of removals isn’t here yet, if it’s ever coming at all. To the contrary, the system is struggling to discharge kids, as reunification and adoptions have both significantly decreased. We also have our first look at medical care, dental care, placement stability, sibling separation, and other measures that DCF only reports quarterly. Go ahead and form your own theory about what happened on those before you read on. You might be surprised.

Here are the details.

There were 10,054 initial in-home abuse calls accepted in June 2020. That is only 230 calls below June 2019, making it a fairly normal summer. You can see in the chart above that June calls have been dropping since at least 2016. The rate of decrease actually slowed this month, coming in at 11% above the seasonal trendline. That bump could be due to delayed calls from April and May or the drumbeat of media stories about how people need to report. The short version: people can’t say that calls are down this month, but I’m not quite ready to say they’re rebounding either.

Looking at the pipeline effects, with fewer calls in April and May, there were fewer investigations to close in June — though some investigations may have also been closed faster due to reduced workload. The number of verifications also went down while the number of removals rose slightly. None of this is particularly unusual, except it happened to occur during a pandemic.

And that’s the takeaway thus far: we haven’t seen the drastic increase in removals that people whose jobs depend on caseloads keep predicting. The chart below shows that there has been a gradual but steady decrease in removals since around 2016. June was about 2% up, which is right with the trend.

Now that we have more data for context, it appears that April 2020 was our lowest month for removals, as everyone was getting adjusted to the lockdown. That dip of 15% in April was still less than Hurricane Irma in November 2017, which shut down four of the five regions and reduced removals by 19%. There was a slight rebound in 2017, but it came two months later and quickly leveled out.

Meanwhile, we are seeing lower numbers of kids exiting care across the board. Total exits were about 18% below the trendline. Reunifications were 14% below, and guardianships were pretty even. Adoptions in June, typically one of the biggest adoption months right before the end of the fiscal year, were down a whopping 42% from the expected value. I’ve got a few theories on why. First, trials have been postponed, which could reduce the number of kids free for adoption. Countering that, though, appeals usually take 4-8 months, so we should still be clearing out adoptions from December 2019 to maybe March 2020. Second, the summer adoption campaigns that normally result in lots of adoptions happening all at once probably got paused this year. All those adoptions may wind up spread over the summer months more evenly. The lower rate of adoptions for June isn’t a headline — yet.

New this month, we have data from DCF reports that are run quarterly. Take a look at the DCF chart below. The pandemic seems to have solved placement instability. We don’t yet know why that is, but I suspect foster parents were less likely to ask for a kid to be removed, and agencies were less likely to act on requests that were made. Whatever the reason, the decrease in placement changes happened statewide. The Southern Region hit the 4.12 moves per 1,000 bed days standard for the first time in five years. It will be interesting to see if we can hold these numbers down.

The lockdown appears to have significantly disrupted dental care. Note that the measure covers the entire quarter and looks back seven months, so some of these kids may have gone to the dentist prior to the lockdown.

The lockdown only slightly reduced medical care. Maybe more kids wound up going to the doctor with suspicious symptoms, or maybe the expansion of telehealth made it possible to see a doctor without going in. The window here is 12 months, so maybe we’ll see a dip next quarter if the lockdown continues.

As far as the other reports, there was no noticeable change in the percent of kids placed in their removal circuit, seen by case managers every 30 days, sibling groups placed together, or just about any of the other quarterly reported measures. You can review DCF’s dashboards here.

You can play with the dashboards I created for these posts here and view the data by region, CBC, circuit, or even county. Until next month, be safe.

Charts & Graphs

Comparing Racial Disparity in Florida’s Child Welfare System

A critical step in reducing racial disparity in the child welfare system is having a way of measuring it. The standard methods, including the one used by DCF in its public dashboards, all have documented weaknesses that either under- or over-estimate disproportionality and provide numbers that cannot be directly compared between different subgroups like regions or CBCs. This post uses a standardized measure proposed by Rolock 2011 to show where in Florida’s system we need to focus. There will be numbers and lots of graphs, so here are the main points.

  • In fiscal year 2018-19, non-white kids in Florida had 1.80 times the risk of experiencing a child abuse investigation as white kids.
  • White kids under investigation were then slightly more likely to have their allegations verified (1.07x) and white kids who were verified were slightly more likely to be removed (1.04x), but not at rates that overcame the initial disparity in investigations. White children also had a higher chance of being discharged from care once in it (1.06x).
  • The result is that non-white children had 1.73 times the risk of being in out-of-home care compared to white children. The disparity was even higher for non-white teens at 2.20 times the risk of white teens.
  • Disparity rates varied widely by CBC, with risk of out-of-home care ranging from nearly even in one CBC (1.008x) to almost five times as high (4.720x) in the most racially disparate CBC. Those differences were driven largely by disparity in investigations and then an inability to discharge non-white children at equal rates. This was especially true of the CBCs with the highest disparity in out-of-home care.
  • In terms of placement, non-white children in care were at higher risk of incarceration, Baker Act, and running away. White children were at higher risk of being placed in a therapeutic placement under most CBCs.

The takeaway is that if non-white children were in care in the same proportions as white children, there would be 4,000 fewer kids in the system. That would save $23.4 million per year in board rate payments alone. The National Council for Adoption estimated that in 2010 it cost a state approximately $25,000 per year to keep a child in foster care. If that’s true today, racial disparity in foster care costs Florida $100 million dollars annually.

The chart below shows the disparities by CBC. The values answer the question “How many times greater are non-white children at risk of the action compared to white children when accounting for state demographics?” It calculates each stage of the case using the group of kids who entered from the previous stage — for example, the risk of removal is calculated using the group of children whose allegations were verified. This lets us see how each stage contributes to or corrects for previous disparities. You can see clearly: racial disparity begins at the beginning. The rest of this post explains this chart.

Weighted risk ratios for each CBC at each stage of a case. Data source: DCF Dashboards. (click to enlarge)

First let’s discuss disparity

Conversations around measuring disparity often turn into a debate about how many children should be in foster care or need to be the target of child welfare services. One argument in that debate says that not all difference is disparity. Disparity, in that view, is only “a bad difference,” and some kids need to be in foster care for their protection. Under that view, if more Black kids are in foster care, then that could be reflective of their needs and not necessarily bad thing. A stronger version says that Black kids are in care more because they need to be, full stop.

The argument is rarely that blunt, but it’s always lurking. For example:

One issue that clouds this discussion is that there is no clear standard for child welfare involvement. One cannot say, for instance, that because less than 1% of children in the United States are in foster care that this is the correct percentage—nor is there any evidence that this percentage should necessarily be higher or lower. While it is often assumed that less contact with the child welfare system is good, both under and over representation of specific ethnic or racial groups should raise questions…

Rolock, 2011.

As such, much of the literature frames child welfare services as either a neutral or positive public health project that either helps or does not help families. It is rarely posited as something that harms. Under that neutral good view there is some “correct” number of kids in foster care, even if the goal is to get that number as low as possible. For example, Bywaters et al. (2015) describes and then rejects a framework of supply and demand where families have needs that create demand for child welfare services and the government and communities in turn supply those needs. Intead, Bywaters frames the issue as one of the inequities that drive kids into care — and by doing so, the moral and ethical problems of the system become more clear. Roberts, Cloud, Phillips & Pon, Burrell, Cooper, and many more writers have put the child welfare system into the context of people who experience it and the communities that pay for it most heavily.

We also know foster care is a system of inequity because, while there are lots of privileged people seeking to make it unavoidable for other families, they are not simultaneously demanding access to the system for their own kids. Families need community safety, good physical and mental health, social support, material wealth, and political power to create better lives. If you have that, you don’t need DCF. Nobody calls DCF to put their child in foster care for a few days while they go on a business trip, and there is no Operation Varsity Blues for rich people trying to scam their kids into care. That’s because foster care is not a good thing.

Take the responses of Black mothers in Florida’s system, who described the ways the system takes and keeps kids for reasons completely unrelated to parenting:

The sense of powerlessness and helplessness was profound as parents described being trapped by personal limitations and systemic unresponsiveness. Concentrated poverty translated into a series of severe deficits: lack of sound housing, nutritious food, accessible healthcare, adequate transportation, and childcare services. Concomitant with high standards set by the courts, such factors combined conspired to decrease the likelihood these families would ever see their children returned

Kokaliari et al. (2019).

When a bad thing happens almost exclusively to poor, disfavored, and marginalized people, the morality and ethics of the situation are clear. Difference in a punitive, inequitable system is disparity. Further parsing of who “needs” to be in the system is no more instructive than debating who “needs” to be poor, unhealthy, or alone. We can discuss what drives more kids into foster care as a question of inequity, but no kid should be there at all. Now let’s get to the numbers.

Measuring difference

The simplest way to measure difference is to just count. In the chart below you can see that non-white children (the sum of DCF’s Black and Other categories) made up about 28% of the population, whereas they made up 42% of investigations and 40% of out-of-home care. Their percentage of discharges was slightly lower at 39%. These patterns are going to play out again and again — racial disparity starts on the telephone.

Before we go further, the three DCF categories Black, White, and Other should be interpreted with lots of caution. Schmidt et al. (2015) found that one state’s system tended to label kids as white at higher rates than school districts labeled the same kids, and even higher than the kids described themselves. The study also showed that 20% of the children’s racial self-identification changed over time. To my knowledge, the race labels in Florida DCF’s system are entered when the case comes in — usually for a baby — and not updated again.

DCF doesn’t limit case managers or investigators to just the three categories. They actually have the six below, plus three extras: Unable to Determine, Declined to Respond, and Unknown. They additionally capture whether the child is or is not Hispanic. (They have a marginally helpful FAQ about it here.) In DCF’s public-facing dashboards, they roll these options into the three categories above. The “Other” category is entirely too broad — an Asian child and a child who is multiracial Black and white will have very different experiences in care, but are lumped into the same group. I can’t undo that here. Future work needs to be done.

Removals in FY2018-19 from Public FSFN Database (Feb. 2020). The numbers are close to the “Removals” line above, but are not exact because DCF does monthly point-in-time counts and the numbers here are every child who came into care during the period.

Back to the measures. To determine disparity, you might next look at proportions, the number of kids per 1,000 in the general population who find themselves at each stage in the system. You can see below that 86.59 per 1,000 non-white kids went through investigations, but only 47.15 white kids did.

Number per 1,000 kids in the population.

There is an important factoid hiding in this chart. If non-white kids were in foster care in the same proportion as white kids (4.52 per 1,000), there would be around 4,000 fewer kids in care. That would reduce our foster care rolls by about 17%. At a board rate of $16 per day, that would save the state $23.4 million per year in foster care payments alone. Racial disparity costs money. If you use the National Council for Adoption‘s 2010 estimate that it cost a state approximately $25,000 per year to keep a child in foster care, racial disparity costs Florida $100 million dollars annually.

Now on to our next measure. Taking out-of-home care as an example, if you divide the proportion of Black children (6.9 per 1,000) by the proportion of all children (5.45 per 1,000) you get a value called the disproportionality index (DI) or the disproportionality representation index (DRI). In this example, 6.9 / 5.45 = 1.27. This is the measure that DCF uses on its dashboards. It has the benefit of being easy to understand: there are 1.27 times more Black kids in out of home care than “should be” as compared to all kids in the community. It has the drawback of making it harder to compare regions or CBCs of different sizes and racial compositions. As an extreme example, 3.0 / 9.0 gives a DI of 3.0, but 43.0 / 49.0 gives 1.14, even though they are both separated by 6 per 1,000. Conversely, I can get a DI of 3.00 by 3.0 / 9.0 or 20.0/ 60.0. The value 3.0 can represent vastly different experiences on the ground.

Below is what it looks like on DCF’s dashboards. Graphing the DI is messy.

DCF Dashboard using the disproportionality index as a measure. You can see giant dips and spikes in the number of kids categorized as “Other/Multi-Racial”.

If you divide two groups’ disproportionality indices by each other, you get a new number that is sometimes called the disparity index (Shaw et al., 2008), and is a calculation of relative risk. A value of 1.0 would be equal risks in the two groups. The chart below shows that non-white kids are anywhere from 1.64 to 1.84 times as prevalent in the system as they are in the general population (and white kids are underrepresented by the same amount). You can see that the disparity is the highest in investigations (1.84), goes down a little in removals (1.71), and rises again as you go through the stages of a case to out-of-home-care (1.73) and being in care for over 12 months (1.80). This is exactly what we saw in our very first chart of measures above. It’s just easier to see the relationship now.

The disparity index, just like the disproportionality index, has its own quirks that make it hard to compare among different CBCs or regions. Specifically, it tends to under-estimate the risk when the percentage of the measured population is small and over-estimate the risk when it is large. (Rolock 2011). To DCF’s credit, it does not provide side-by-side comparisons on its dashboards. But that’s what we need to do, and doing so requires more complicated math that gives simpler measures.

On a final note, we also want to measure how disparity creeps in at each step through the system. That means we should use a step-wise approach, calculating the disparity at each stage based on the population that entered the stage from the previous step. For example, to get a disparity measure for children who were removed, we will use the group of children who had verified maltreatment — not all kids in the general population. This is sometimes called decision-point based enumeration. (Thurston & Miyamoto, 2020.) Now, here we go. This is what this post is actually about.

Harder math, better graphs

To compare CBCs to each other, let’s use a measure called the weighted risk ratio (WRR). The WRR allows you to more directly compare groups that are themselves not homogeneous. Nancy Rolock at University of Illinois at Chicago wrote in favor of using WRRs in child welfare back in 2011. They are also recommended for use in the special education arena to determine differences among lots of different schools and districts, which helps focus resources and scrutiny on places that need it. I’m using the special ed formula.

WRRs answer questions like: “How many times greater is a specific racial group at risk of being removed in comparison with all other racial groups under the same CBC, weighted by the demographics of the state?” The math-magic is that WRRs adjust for the variability between different CBCs to give you a number you can compare even when the CBCs don’t have the same group percentages (our 3/9 and 20/60 example above). The downside is that it doesn’t work well for small numbers so you have to use an alternate formula that compares the local risk to the comparison group’s statewide risk.

So what does that get us? The chart below shows the weighted risk ratios for children in Florida at each listed stage of the system (based on the population from the previous step in most cases). All of the data comes right from DCF’s dashboards, just calculated in a different way. I’m using the categories White vs. Non-white (i.e., Black + Other) to make it easier, and also because I don’t trust DCF’s “Other” category to stand on its own. A risk ratio of 1.0 means that white and non-white children have equal risk of being screened in at that stage. If a value is less than 1 (orange), then white children have higher risk, and if the value is greater than 1 (blue), then non-white children have higher risk.

Data source: Florida DCF Dashboards, FY2018-19. (click to enlarge)

The top row of the graph shows that during fiscal year 2018-19, non-white children in Florida had 1.836 times the risk of an investigation as white children in Florida. White children were then slightly more likely to have their allegations verified (-1.072) and slightly more likely to be removed (-1.043), but neither number was large enough to make up for the original disparity. And, importantly, white children were also more likely to be discharged (-1.057). The result is that non-white children in Florida were at 1.733 time the risk of out-of-home care placement than white children.

The graph also breaks it down by age in the next rows. You can see that the risk was highest for non-white babies and decreased slightly through age 14. White babies were more likely to be verified and removed (albeit not at rates that overcame the original disparity in investigations), but then around age 10 things shift. Non-white tweens and teens with verified allegations were at higher risk of removal than white ones (1.023 and 1.131). White teens were then significantly more likely to be discharged than non-white teens (-1.374). The result is that non-white teens in Florida had 2.196 times the risk of out-of-home care placement than white teens, a risk much higher than any other age group.

Weighted risk ratios by CBC

Now for the bigger picture. Here is the same chart by CBC, again for fiscal year 2018-19. The CBC with the highest WRR for investigations, Citrus Family Care Network (3.427), is almost three times as high as the CBC with the lowest, Kids First of Florida (1.196). The WRR in the out-of-home care measure ranges from nearly even at -1.008 to a whopping 4.72. Racial disparities are happening everywhere, but not in the same ways.

(click to enlarge)

You can see so much in these graphs. For example, you see that disparity starts in investigations under every single CBC. By the verification and removal stages, you can see how the local systems work either towards or against disparity, but only one CBC managed to overcome that initial skew. The systems with lower racial disparity in their investigations seemed to correct for it better than the areas with higher disparities. A few areas at the top of the chart actually compounded the disparity through disproportionate removals (but so did the CBC at the very bottom).

Finally, the graph shows that the areas with the highest levels of disproportionality in their out-of-home care populations (seen at the top of the chart) significantly struggled to correct for it through discharges. Only one CBC — Kids First of Florida — was close to equal on its out-of-home care rates, and it also had the highest rate of discharging non-white children.

Let’s look at the same chart from the perspective of Black children vs. non-Black children below.

(click to enlarge)

A few things leap out when centering on Black children. First, the disparity in investigations is lower but still high. Black children in Kids First Florida in Clay County (Circuit 4) actually have lower risk of investigation as non-black kids. Again, removals of Black children tended to be correlated with areas with higher out-of-home care disparity. There are even CBCs where Black children have lower risk of being in out-of-home care than non-Black children, but that may be due to the over-representation of kids in the “Other” category. Those areas still had higher risk for non-white kids.

The most striking thing about this graph, though, is the insanely low risk of discharges (i.e., high risk of not being discharged) for Black children in those areas with the highest out-of-home care disparity. It’s like there’s a jetstream pushing Black kids into care and keeping them there. I wonder what that could be.

One more chart — the CBC chart organized by DCF regions.

(click to enlarge)

Weighted Risk Ratios of Discharge Types

The obvious next step is to try to look at discharges by race as well. To do this, I used DCF’s Exits from Care dashboard and added up the values for fiscal year 2018-2019. Here’s what I got. You can see that CBCs with high disparity have trouble discharging non-white children across all discharge types. CBCs with lower disparity do manage to discharge non-white kids at higher rates here and there, especially into guardianships and reunification. Only three CBCs managed to adopt non-white kids out at slightly higher rates: Big Bend CBC (1.08), ChildNet Broward (1.06) and Heartland for Children (1.03).

(click to enlarge)

One CBC really stands out above because its risk ratio numbers are huge. A white child with Family Integrity Program in St. Johns County (Circuit 7) had 7.29 times the risk of being adopted (I recognize that’s a weird way to say it) and 5.08 times the risk of guardianship as a non-white child. That’s because in 2018-2019 only 5 non-white children were adopted and 2 non-white children went into guardianships, compared to 56 and 15 white children respectively. That means 55% of white kids in St. Johns County exited through adoption or guardianship, but only 15% of non-white kids did. Yes, it’s a small CBC with about 180 kids, 80% of which are white. It only discharges about 15 kids per month, but as you can see below, it rarely breaks 5 non-white kids exiting per month, mostly to reunification, and many months have 0. Someone should ask questions about that.

Placement Settings

This last part doesn’t come from DCF’s dashboards. Instead I used the Public FSFN Database from February 2020 to look at every kid in foster care’s placement history. Specifically, I ran queries for correctional, therapeutic, mental health (Baker Act), and runaway episodes. I limited the queries to just those kids who came into care in fiscal year 2018-2019, which cut out kids who had been in care for years prior, but also let us say that these are events that happened early in their removal period and doesn’t bias towards kids who were in care longer and had more chance to be arrested, etc. I used DCF’s numbers for removals, which in retrospect may not have been the right call because DCF’s numbers were slightly lower than what is found in the database. It’ll still get us in the ballpark.

The graph below shows a significant difference in risk of non-white kids being placed in correctional placements, and very extreme skews towards white children for therapeutic placements and non-white children for mental health placements at many CBCs. Non-white children were at higher risk of running away almost everywhere, which could be a factor of there being more non-white teens in care or of not seeing the system as helpful.

(click to enlarge)

That’s it. Now let’s get to work.

Charts & Graphs

Month 3: Only a crisis if you thought 2010 was awful

Florida statewide intakes by month over time.

The May numbers are out and they begin to show how the pandemic is affecting things later in the pipeline from investigation to removal. Remember that investigations take about 60 days from intake. Intakes were down 6% in March and 16% in April from their expected numbers based on historical trends. Closures on investigations in May, however, dropped nearly 34% from the expected trend. That suggests investigations may be taking longer to close. Meanwhile, verifications were down 22% from trend, and removals were only 7% below trend.

Difference from expected value based on seasonal trends.

Having removals come in 7% under the trendline is very normal. It happened in November 2019 and didn’t make headlines. This suggests that the reduction in intakes was more heavily weighted toward low-risk cases that would not have resulted in a removal anyway. DCF only verifies about 15% of calls and only removes about 4-6% children under investigation, so a reduction in frivolous cases is a win for everyone. We need to wait another month to see how the remaining March-April intakes come out.

On the back-end, exits from care are still very low. They were 40% lower than last year and 20% below the trend line. Reunifications and adoptions were both down. Courts should probably set a few rocket docket days to hear the cases that are pending an uncontested reunification, adoption, and guardianship.

Looking ahead, intakes in May dropped about 33% from 2019 levels, or 9.9% below trend. That puts us back to 2010-level numbers, and it’s still too early to say whether that is an anomaly or a new normal.

You can explore the numbers all the way down to the county level using the dashboard.

Here are the statewide details for this month.

Intakes were down about 9.9%. It’s very hard to put that decrease in context because the intake numbers started behaving oddly in mid-2019. The “turn” may have predated the virus, but we’ll only know if this was a dip or a new normal with more time. The numbers for April have been adjusted up to -16.3% (from -26.5% last month) based on the new data. That’s still hurricane levels low.


Investigation closures were down 34%. We are starting to see the pipeline effects of the lockdown. Intakes were low in March, so closures — which take up to 60 days — are predictably low in May. Based on the numbers of intakes in April, closures should be down even more in June.

Investigation closures.

Verifications were down 22%. Verifications have been steadily decreasing for years. The fact that verifications didn’t drop as much as closures suggests (but definitely doesn’t prove) that the lockdown resulted in a larger percentage of lower risk cases from being called in. It doesn’t fully prove that because we can’t say how the pandemic affected DCF’s perception of what should be verified.


Removals were only down 7%. That’s well within normal ranges for removals. This is the strongest indication yet that the pandemic resulted in fewer low-risk cases being reported — with the same caveat that we don’t know how DCF’s risk analysis changed. Removals per 100 victims went up a little, again suggesting that more low-risk cases were removed from the investigation pool.

There’s been a lot of discussion about homebound children and sexual abuse cases, and sure enough removals were up for sexual abuse (+23%), inadequate housing (+14%), and inadequate supervision (+10%). That could mean more egregious sexual abuse cases or less risk-tolerance from DCF. Removals came in lower than expected for physical abuse (-11%), drug abuse (-7%), and domestic violence (-3%). All of these, however, were within normal ranges, meaning we saw similar ups and downs throughout the last 16 years. The removal of Black children was down 7.7% in May and 22% in April. That April number was very low.


Discharges from care were down 20%. That’s very low. Courts are starting to get back up and running, so this number should go back up over time as cases that were ready to close get put on the docket. Here are the numbers by permanency type: reunifications were down 13%, adoptions were down 13%, and guardianships were flat.


That’s it for now. The full dashboard lets you see the numbers all the way down to the county level.

What I'm Reading

A starter reading list on how child welfare policies harm Black people, families, and communities

The child welfare system has nothing to say about anti-Black state violence because the child removal system engages in it daily. Do the reading, and then let’s get to defunding the removal system, redirecting billions in resources directly to communities experiencing problems, and stripping child welfare decisions from bureaucrats and locating them properly back with families.

All quotes are from the books and articles they fall under. Feel free to suggest other readings in the comments. [Edit: As I get offline suggestions, I will add new things.]

Shattered Bonds: The Color of Child Welfare by Dorothy E. Roberts (2002):

The new politics of child welfare threatens to intensify state supervision of Black children. In the past several years, federal and state policy have shifted away from preserving families toward “freeing” children in foster care for adoption by terminating parental rights. Welfare reform, by throwing many families deeper into poverty, heightens the risk that some children will be removed from struggling families and placed in foster care. Black families, who are disproportionately poor, have been hit the hardest by this retraction of public assistance for needy children. And tougher treatment of juvenile offenders, imposed most harshly on African American youth, is increasing the numbers incarcerated in juvenile detention facilities and adult prisons. These political trends are shattering the bonds between poor Black children and their parents.

Prison, Foster Care, and the Systemic Punishment of Black Mothers by Dorothy E. Roberts (2012):

Foster care is more than a precursor to prison (for children), and prison is more than a precursor to foster care for children (of the incarcerated). The simultaneous buildup and operation of the prison and foster care systems rely on the punishment of black mothers, who suffer greatly from the systems’ intersection. This Article analyzes how both systems work together to punish black mothers in the service of preserving U.S. race, gender, and class inequality in a neoliberal age. The intersection of prison and foster care is only one example of many forms of overpolicing that overlap and converge in the lives of poor women of color. I investigate this particular systemic intersection to help elucidate how state mechanisms of surveillance and punishment work to penalize the most marginalized women in our society while blaming them for their own disadvantaged positions. This systemic intersection naturalizes social inequality and obscures the need for social change.

Toward the Abolition of the Foster System by Erin Miles Cloud (2019) [added 6/11/2020]

However, unlike the criminal legal system, the foster system is often excused from rigorous critique, in part because it is framed as helpful, supportive, and well-intentioned rather than punitive and retributive. Yet it is incumbent on society to interrogate all systems that disproportionately impact Black people, even those that supposedly protect us. As long-time activist Joyce McMillan says, “Do people really think that somehow the child welfare system targets Black people but targets them in a good way?” If we can agree that implicit bias and racism are at least part of why our society is more likely to shoot a Black person, call the police on Black people, or profile a Black body, why do we believe that there are more noble reasons for the disproportionate reporting of Black mothers and removal of Black children? The reality is that both the criminal legal and the foster systems are rooted in deeply violent historical narratives about Black bodies that do more to promote punishment than safety.

It is especially important to critique the foster system when the individuals it claims to help explicitly characterize it as harm. In my nine years of representing parents, I have almost never heard my clients use words like “support,” “assistance,” or “rehabilitation” to describe their experiences with the foster system. Mothers and activists like Dinah Ortiz-Adames consistently denounce it. Within my own family, I have experienced it break down rather than build up bonds. Even the children who are supposed to be served by this system decry its effectiveness.

Issue 1: Anti-Black Racism, Bio-Power, and Governmentality: Deconstructing the Suffering of Black Families Involved with Child Welfare by Doret Philips & Gordon Pon (2018):

In this article, we focus on how anti-Black racism and white supremacy are embodied or manifested in tangible or visible forms in the child welfare system. Given the often heart-wrenching narratives of suffering experienced by Black children and families involved with child welfare services, we ask the following two guiding questions: 1) how are colonialism, anti-Black racism and white supremacy embodied by the child welfare system? And, 2) how can the extreme suffering experienced by many Black families involved with the child welfare system be understood? This schema of embodiment is necessary to deconstruct how anti-Black racism, colonialism, and white supremacy are manifested in the day-to-day policies and practices of child welfare.

What Can the Child Welfare System Learn in the Wake of the Floyd Decision?: A Comparison of Stop-And-Frisk Policing and Child Welfare Investigations by Michelle Burrell (2019):

The child welfare system needs a public image shift. The image of parents who have been subjected to government intrusion needs to be shifted, from a public mindset that those who are receiving intervention from child protective officials need or deserve it, to a healthy criticism and interrogation of the intrusion and family separation based on allegations that have not been proven true. Recently, the prospect of removing children from their parents at the border was met with much public backlash, and mental health professionals across the country insisted that the harm being caused by such separation was inhumane and could have longterm irreparable effects. This is also true for children removed from their parents residing in the United States. The same irreparable harm applies to children separated in communities across the country.

Racial Bias in American Foster Care: The National Debate by Tanya A. Cooper (2013):

In disproportionately high numbers, Native American and African American children find themselves in the American foster care system. Empirical data establish that these children are removed from their families at greater rates than other races and stay in foster care longer, where they are often abused, neglected, and then severed from their families forever. For the past few decades, a vigorous debate has raged regarding whether these children are actually at greater risk for maltreatment if left at home or are just targets of discrimination in a hegemonic institution. Although the research previously showed no racial differences in child maltreatment rates, the latest Congressional study has found that African American and Native American children are at greater risk for child maltreatment than children of other races. Despite the caution with which researchers have interpreted the data and implicated future policies, scholars are asking whether, as a society, we are protecting or destroying children from these historically disempowered races. Foster care laws offer little practical guidance because the overarching legal standards are too vague or not consistently applied.

Systems thinking, however, provides one useful framework for uncovering points in the foster care system where unintended bias manifests and potential leverage points to exert pressure and effect change. A systems thinking approach also reveals that the foster care system’s primary motivation is simply perpetuating itself; accordingly, to achieve meaningful reform, public policy makers in the U.S. must closely examine this billion-dollar, publicly-funded bureaucracy and the racial disparities it routinely fosters.

African American perspectives on racial disparities in child removals by Effrosyni D. Kokaliari, Ann W. Roy, and Joyce Taylor (2019):

African American children are overrepresented in foster care at twice to three times the rate of white children. Scholars argue that racism and oppression underlie disproportionality (Križ & Skivenes, 2011).

This study explored disproportionality as seen through the eyes of African American parents in the child welfare system. The aim was to understand why African American families are over-represented in child custody statistics and to improve family and parenting support for African American communities.

Who am I? Who do you think I am? Stability of racial/ethnic self-identification among youth in foster care and concordance with agency categorization by Jessica Schmidt et al. (2015):

While it has been well documented that racial and ethnic disparities exist for children of color in child welfare, the accuracy of the race and ethnicity information collected by agencies has not been examined, nor has the concordance of this information with youth self-report. This article addresses a major gap in the literature by examining: 1) the racial and ethnic self-identification of youth in foster care, and the rate of agreement with child welfare and school categorizations; 2) the level of concordance between different agencies (school and child welfare); and 3) the stability of racial and ethnic self-identification among youth in foster care over time. Results reveal that almost 1 in 5 youth change their racial identification over a one-year period, high rates of discordance exist between the youth self-report of Native American, Hispanic and multiracial youth and how agencies categorize them, and a greater tendency for the child welfare system to classify a youth as White, as compared to school and youth themselves. Information from the study could be used to guide agencies towards a more youth-centered and flexible approach in regards to identifying, reporting and affirming youth’s evolving racial and ethnic identity.

Colorblind Must Not Mean Blind to the Realities Facing Black Children by Zanita Fenton (2006):

The interaction of state agencies and administrative bodies, especially those of the justice system (including police, prosecutors, and judges) with communities of color is a major factor that contributes to a dynamic that is central to understanding the pervasiveness of institutional racism. People of color have a general distrust of the justice system that is well founded in history. This foundation includes both legal and extra-legal persecution of Black males, an entire era of extrajudicial lynching, the more recent documentation of racial profiling, and police brutality against people of color. The disproportionate numbers of Black children in foster care easily leads one to believe there are biases operating in this system as well. Thus, there is a real reticence in inviting state involvement of any kind into the private and family lives of people within the Black community.

However Kindly Intentioned: Structural Racism and Volunteer CASA Programs by Amy Mulzer & Tara Urs (2016):

Although CASA programs are a relatively new development, emerging as an experiment of one judge in Seattle in the 1980s they are part of the larger historical story of child welfare. The demographic make-up of CASA programs—mostly middle-class white women over the age of 30—easily recalls the women who, after the Civil War, played the primary role in establishing the modern child welfare system. The ability of white women to speak for the best interests of poor children of color, to advocate for their removal from their families, and to receive deference and praise from legal systems, comes to our modern legal system with
deep roots. Understanding the role of race, gender, and power in forming the structure of the child welfare system explains in part why our legal system so comfortably tolerates a volunteer advocate whose role, in any other context, would not survive even a halfhearted due process challenge. And a full picture of the racist underpinnings of the modern child welfare system helps develop a fuller view of CASA programs.

Charts & Graphs

The April Data Is Out

We are finally starting to see what impact a nationwide quarantine will have on the foster care system. DCF handled 18,894 intakes in April, which was the lowest number in at least a decade. You could call that 40% lower than last year, or you could say that it’s 26% lower than expected, given that the numbers have been on a downward trend anyway. Either way, as you can see in the full dashboard, we’re beyond hurricane numbers, which typically give a month of lower intakes and then a return to normal. We are instead moving into something unprecedented: what happens if the foster care system doesn’t get new kids?

Ins and outs

For context to the numbers below, I want to give an analogy. The foster care system is a pipeline. Kids come in through the front and leave out the back. Governmental policies, more than anything else, determine the rates at which kids enter and exit. Over the decades, various federal and state administrations have prioritized removals, adoptions, reunifications, in-home services, licensed placements, family placements, and a slew of other policies that had the primary effect of changing the rate of kids coming in and the rate of kids going out.

The middle of the system is like a firehose. If you push water into the hose faster than it can exit, then your hose will expand and eventually burst. If you don’t keep enough pressure in the hose, the water will sit and become stagnant. Pressure comes from pumps and valves and other mechanisms that keep things moving.

Putting that water hose in child welfare terms, the policies around permanency timelines, judicial review, and funding limitations are designed to keep kids moving through the system. The policies around placements are meant to provide enough flexibility that the system can expand and contract without suffering serious shocks.

The most significant expansions and contractions in systems have largely been a result of intentional governmental policies. Since the acculturation of Americans to mandatory child abuse reporting from the 1960s through the 1990s, there has been a steady stream of reports, but not always a consistent level of governmental response. People have built careers, contracts, and budgets around handling a certain number of cases or children per month. Foster parents make work decisions based on the board rate, and programs hire staff on the reasonable assumption that every child who leaves will be replaced by a new one.

A lot of discussions have centered on the question of whether kids will be left in unsafe homes due to the pandemic. I think that’s a valid question. We don’t know whether those 26% of calls would have resulted in removals or not. We don’t even have a good baseline, because we don’t know how the pandemic will change the rates and nature of child maltreatment. We have reason to believe financial insecurity raises the risk of abuse and neglect, but we also know that income inequality and racial disparities impact the numbers by targeting certain families for scrutiny. We have no idea what happens when everyone goes through social and financial trauma at the same time.

The pandemic also raises a second question of what happens to the system if people don’t call cases in and that steady stream of kids suddenly dries up. Will investigators start removing children on facts that would have otherwise gotten a pass? Will the system hold onto existing children longer to minimize the time that beds stay empty? Will programs close or change their focus to take in different kids? Will foster parents not take one child because they had built their home’s budget around two or they now have their own families to look after? Will children who had been bounced around before suddenly find stability when there is no other child waiting to take their place.?

We have never in modern history had a prolonged supply-side shock to the child welfare system. How it responds will tell us a lot about how it works.

Here are the numbers for Florida.

Intakes were down 26.5% from the expected rate. You can see that the March numbers have been adjusted up to -4% because they don’t look so low compared to the new trend. The numbers were down in every region of the state.

Verifications were normal, maybe even a little up (+1%). They’ve been going down for a very long time. That dip in December 2019 predates any serious talk of pandemics. I have no explanation for that. Verifications follow this pattern everywhere except the Southern and Northeast Regions, where they were flat.

Removals were down 19%. There’s usually a two-month lag between an intake and a removal. These investigations would have happened during the pandemic, but the calls likely came in right before it. We are still seeing hurricane levels here. Removals for physical abuse (-30%), inadequate housing (-11%), inadequate supervision (-18%), and sexual abuse (-14%) were all significantly down. Drug abuse (-4%) and domestic violence (-6%) removals were low but normal.

Removals per 100 intakes were normal (-2%). Again, these removals are based on intakes that came in right before the lockdown. We will be watching this number over the next months to see what happens.

Exits were low-normal (-5%). This will also be interesting to watch.

Reunifications were normal (-1%). But, you can see that drop-off getting ready to happen. If that line jumps back up next month, we’re continuing our normal downward trend. If it falls off even more, we have something new happening.

Guardianships may be back to normal (-0.4%). You can see that guardianships took a huge hit in March, but hopped back up in April. Again, that is either part of the old decrease or it’s a new normal. Only time will tell.

Adoptions recovered (+3%). I suspected that judges would handle the adoptions that got postponed, and that seems to be what happened. Those cases were already ready, so it’s easy to just set the one final hearing. We do not yet know how the pandemic will affect the permanency timelines of cases that come in now.

The full dashboard is available here. You can check the numbers for your region, CBC, circuit, or county. You can also see the breakdown of how removals are different for different maltreatment types. I hope you’re doing well in these strange times.

Case Law Updates

No qualified immunity for baseless investigations & safety plans in the Sixth Circuit

When you’re being investigated for a crime, you have rights. You have the right to remain silent, and the right against unreasonable search and seizure of your property. If you are arrested, you have the right to an attorney, a trial where you can confront the witnesses against you, and afterwards the right to an appeal. We value these rights because we know from centuries of experience they are necessary to limit the abuse of state power, even if they are often insufficient when needed most.

If you’re investigated for child abuse, however, your rights are far less clear. You typically do not have the right to remain silent; you may never find out the identity of the person who called in the initial abuse report against you; and your children, home, and person can be searched based on that anonymous report with no clear way of challenging the search in the moment, and no way to limit the use of anything found later if the original search was unreasonable. You are not arrested at the end of a child abuse investigation, but your children can be. We call it removal, but it’s state custody just the same. And your failure to cooperate can lead to your children’s removal all by itself. Florida Statutes include in the definition of “harm” to a child when a parent:

Makes the child unavailable for the purpose of impeding or avoiding a protective investigation unless the court determines that the parent, legal custodian, or caregiver was fleeing from a situation involving domestic violence.

§ 39.01, Fla. Stat. Ann.

Courts and policymakers have become more aware of these dynamics and their constitutional implications. An upcoming article by Josh Gupta-Kagan at University of South Carolina School of Law adds a new dimension to this story: the use of voluntary safety planning in lieu of removal. Writes Gupta-Kagan:

While informal custody changes [through safety plans] can sometimes serve children’s and families’ interests by preventing state legal custody, this hidden foster care system raises multiple concerns, presciently raised in Supreme Court dicta in 1979. State agencies infringe on parents’ and children’s fundamental right to family integrity with few meaningful due process checks. Agencies avoid legal requirements to make reasonable efforts to reunify parents and children, licensing requirements intended to ensure that kinship placements are safe, and requirements to pay foster care maintenance payments to kinship caregivers.

America’s Hidden Foster Care System, upcoming in 72 Stanford Law Review 841 (2020).

To my knowledge, Florida DCF doesn’t publish stats on how many families are under safety plans. We can get a rough estimate by comparing the investigation numbers to the removal numbers. From February 2019 to February 2020, Florida DCF received 359,329 intakes. Of those, 247,406 were accepted for investigation (69%). Of those, 21,420 investigations (9%) resulted in verification for at least one child in the investigation. There were about 36,589 kids in those verified investigations, but only 15,422 children (42%) were actually removed.

So what happened to the 21,000 kids who were verified maltreated but not removed that year? I would guess, for many of them, safety plans. Done cooperatively with the parents, they can help support a family through difficult times. Done coercively, they can separate a family indefinitely without any meaningful recourse. That brings us to the case.

Holly Schulkers ate some chips

This case begins in February 2017, when Holly Schulkers of Kentucky ate some chips and went to the hospital for scheduled induced labor. It ends with her being coerced into a safety plan that required supervised contact with her children for months, she alleges, with no factual or legal basis whatsoever. The story in between is the worst form of standard child welfare investigation procedure.

Here’s a little of that in-between. Holly tested “presumptively positive” for opioids, but said she had taken some of her daughter’s prescription cough medication and had eaten poppy seed chips — specifically, according to a news story on the case, Everything Bagel chips. The hospital never did a confirmatory test, but let her breastfeed and noted no problems in her care of the baby. They did, however, order an umbilical cord test just in case and called in the social worker. The social worker notified child welfare, and the baby stayed in the hospital an extra 72 hours to watch for signs of withdrawal. Apparently none came.

Both a second urine test and the umbilical cord test would eventually come back negative. The child welfare people would know that. But still, they insisted on a safety plan: Holly Schulkers was to have no unsupervised contact with any child, and if she violated that restriction then all of her children would be removed and the case would be brought to court. Note the order there — first removed, then reviewed.

The Schulkers hired an attorney who advised Holly to take a hair follicle test. It was also negative. The attorney advised child welfare that the Schulkers could not be held to a safety plan with no factual basis. Child welfare, meanwhile, went to the older Schulkers children’s school and interviewed them alone in a room, resulting in them coming home scared that their mother would be arrested and they would be taken to foster care.

There are lots of other details in the opinion, such as a supervisor calling Holly to accuse her of heroin usage, which she denied; a nurse stating that Holly showed her the bag of chips; and a supervisor telling the investigator to release the Schulkers from the safety plan, but the investigator never doing so. The result was a two-month safety planned separation from her children. And a lawsuit.

Holly Schulkers sued the social workers

It is more accurate to say that the entire Schulkers family, kids included, sued the social workers. If the facts above seem very heavily against the child welfare professionals, that’s for a reason. Prior to taking the case to trial, the defendants moved for dismissal and summary judgment. In a dismissal, the court assumes that all the pleaded facts are true. In a summary judgment, the court takes all conflicting facts in whatever light is most favorable to the other party (the Schulkers in this case). If both motions are denied, then the case goes to trial. More often, though, the case goes to settlement. To sum up the assumed-true facts:

(1) The hospital staff believed the pre-delivery test of Holly’s urine was a false positive and were permitting Holly to continue to breastfeed the baby;

(2) Holly’s second confirmatory urine test results were negative; and

(3) the results of the umbilical cord testing were also negative.

Therefore, the court notes, “Plaintiffs allege that Defendants did not have any plausible suspicion that the Schulkers’ children were subjected to abuse or neglect at the time they conducted the interviews.” This isn’t the case of an investigation based on an anonymous source or flimsy evidence. This is a case about an investigation based on no evidence at all after the doctors determined the drug tests were negative. The question is whether state actors who engage in baseless investigations can be forced to go to trial and defend their actions, or whether they are protected by the constitution from being sued in the first place.

The defendants’ arguments for summary judgment were not particularly interesting. The decision notes a few times that the defendants kept inviting the court to view the facts in the light most favorable to them, which is not how summary judgment works. There was clearly a dispute about the evidence, and disputes about evidence go to trial.

The motion to dismiss, though, would mean no trial at all. State agents are cloaked in sovereign immunity, which significantly limits their ability to be sued for mundane, everyday governmental mishaps. To permit a lawsuit, the courts must consider whether the state agent violated the person’s constitutional rights and whether the right that was violated was “clearly established” in the law. The state officials have to be on notice that what they’re doing is a constitutional violation. That usually means some prior case has already ruled on similar facts or legal principles. That also means you hope that your case isn’t the first.

But this one was. Surprise.

The Sixth Circuit ruled

The court started by acknowledging that the prior case law in the Sixth Circuit wasn’t clear on the question of what basis is required for children to be detained and questioned by child welfare professionals. The Supreme Court, however, has given the circuit courts discretion to address the constitutional question in the first instance when necessary to “promote the development of constitutional precedent,” and “promote clarity in the legal standards for official conduct, to the benefit of both the officers and the general public.” That’s what the court did.

Interviewing kids in school

First, the court found that the children were clearly “seized” as the term is understood under the Fourth Amendment. They were in a closed room, alone with a government official, and not free to leave. The social workers did not try to argue this point. That seems wise, given their age, but other courts around the country have not been as sure about whether a child is seized if questioned while at school, where they are already, in a way, seized from their parents’ custody by the state. (It seems like sitting in a classroom for social studies and being held in the principal’s office for a custodial interrogation are not the same thing, but I’m not a federal judge.)

The court then reviewed a few competing legal standards for whether a seizure for questioning is reasonable — the same type of analysis that goes into probable cause and stop-and-frisk cases — and found that none of the standards would render the facts here ok. In legal speak, once the state knew that the drug tests all were negative, it “did not have any significant interest in interviewing the children.” At the very least, a social worker “must have reasonable suspicion of child abuse before conducting an in-school interview without a warrant or consent.”

In the Eleventh Circuit, which includes Florida, a somewhat similar situation to the Schulkers’ occured in Loftus v. Clark-Moore. In that 2012 case a father filed a private petition for dependency against the mother and then did not like the onslaught of investigation by DCF that his petition invited. He sued the state, alleging, among other things, that the questioning of his children at school without his consent was a violation of the Fourth Amendment. The Eleventh Circuit held that there was no clearly defined right against the questioning of children at school. In the Eleventh Circuit “a state official may seize a student at a school so long as the seizure is ‘justified at its inception’ and is ‘reasonably related in scope to the circumstances which justified interference in the first place.'” For the Loftus father, it was justified by his own dependency petition.

A jury will have to determine whether the social workers who questioned the Schulkers actually had reasonable suspicion at the time they interviewed the kids. The real facts are typically much messier than the assumed true ones. And this doesn’t mean that investigators can’t question children — it just means they need reasonable suspicion, parental consent, or a court order. That’s really not that much to ask the state to comply with prior to locking children in a room and grilling them about their parents. (See Shanta Trivedi’s The Harm of Child Removal.)

Involuntary safety plans

The Schulkers also brought suit for violation of their Fourteenth Amendment right to parent their children. They argued two violations here: one was substantive, one was procedural. Both were accepted by the court.

The substantive right was easy. Parents have a right to parent their children, and the state has a duty to protect those children. The balance of parents’ rights gives way when the state has reason to believe the children are maltreated. The whole child welfare system lives in this balance. But in this case, at least under the assumed facts, the state had no reason to believe the children were maltreated at all. Under the assumed facts, the hospital called the case in and later determined the drug test was a false positive. The state’s interest in the Schulkers family ended there.

The state tried to argue that a safety plan for supervised contact during the investigation did not cause a deprivation of rights because it was not a removal or termination. But the court didn’t bite. An order from a state agency to have only supervised contact with your own kids for an indefinite period of time is an infringement on your right to freely parent. If done inappropriately, that can be unconstitutional.

The Eleventh Circuit has only issued one opinion related to parental rights and child welfare safety plans. In Maddox v. Stephens, out of Georgia, a medically fragile child was released by the hospital to a paternal grandmother who was trained to provide care. The mother was going to be trained but was booted from the hospital after an altercation. The case worker quickly drafted a safety plan for the child to remain with the grandmother while trying to figure out which county to file a deprivation petition in. The Eleventh Circuit held that the facts didn’t shock the conscious: first, because the state had no control over the hospital releasing the child; and second, because permitting someone who wasn’t trained to have custody would have been worse. The safety plan was actually based on safety. The case provides no guidance on how the court would rule on a safety plan entered with no factual basis.

Back to Kentucky, the arguments on procedural due process were next. The Schulkers argued that they did not voluntarily enter the safety plan because they did so only based on the threat that the children would be removed if they didn’t. That doesn’t sound wrong — warning you about the legal consequences of your actions is not a threat — but in this case it wasn’t true. The evidence, at least at this stage, was that the state had no intention of removing the children. A supervisor even told an investigator to release the family. So, why did the social workers require the safety plan? The Schulkers say to draw down federal dollars for the case.

Even more interesting is the argument that the Schulkers had no meaningful way to challenge the plan except to violate it and risk having their children put into foster care. That’s not due process. The family repeatedly requested for the safety plan to be dissolved and were repeatedly told no even after a supervisor approved releasing them. The defendants say the Schulkers could have filed a “service appeal,” but there is nothing in the record to indicate anyone ever told them that at the time and some evidence that an investigator gave them info on a different procedure that would not apply until after the children were deemed abused. The court did not rule on the constitutionality of the actual process — it ordered a trial to determine whether the family had a meaningful way to challenge the safety plan or not. The assumed true facts were that they did not.

And that’s the next step of this saga. Though the named parties here are the social workers, the real defendant is Kentucky. The parties might go to trial, but more likely they will settle the case for some reasonable amount of money and, hopefully, a commitment from the Commonwealth to update its procedures to formalize the process for safety plans. That might include automatic expiration dates, a chance for formal administrative or judicial review, and a clear statement of rights. It might also include a commitment to support policy change that would clarify the procedure for the temporary detention of children for questioning. Other states should probably look at their laws, too. Given the expansion of pre-removal safety plans, this lawsuit could very easily travel.