What’s causing the Manatee County foster care crisis? By the numbers.

Manatee County is holding a town hall on 8/30 to discuss the drastic expansion of its out-of-home care population. According to news reports, the expansion has been driven largely by an ongoing heroin epidemic. I thought it would be useful to share what the Dashboard says about the situation. The spike may have more to do with changes in policy than with the rise in drug usage among residents.

Top - OOHC IHC chart

First, the big picture: Manatee County has definitely hit historically high out-of-home-care numbers (in blue above). Its in-home care numbers (in green above) are high but not extreme. Manatee County may already be past its peak, as there have been multiple months of steady or decreasing numbers. It could rebound again, but a closer look at the fundamentals below suggest that this is not likely.

Investigations are a little up, verifications are fairly steady, and removals are way up. 

Manatee - Inv, Ver, Rmvl 2Looking at the green line in this chart, it appears that the upswing in removals started sometime around September 2013, which has the lowest removal count on record (only 4) in this area. The sharp upturn the next month suggests a clear policy change occured. The peak appears to have occurred in October 2015, when 74 children were removed.

Notably, the number of screened-in investigations are up by about 33% from 301 in September 2013 to 366 in September 2015. Verifications, however, are trending very slightly downward from 19.93% in September 2013 to 17.76% in September 2015. This rise in screened-in investigations is seen across the state and could be a mix of policy decisions by the Statewide Abuse Hotline or a reflection of population growth. What is clear from these numbers of that the spike in removals is not a result of a drastic spike in the number of investigations. It’s instead likely a change in either the types of cases that are called in or a change in the State’s response to how risk is assessed. The sharp increase suggests a policy change.

Manatee - Rmvl v. Discharge

Changes in OOHC is the simple difference of removals and discharges each month. Discharges and removals are both highly seasonal, with removals spiking at the ends of the school vacation months and discharges spiking in Novembers (adoption days) and June (end of a fiscal year). In the chart to the right, you can see Manatee County’s removals versus discharges, and the recent expansion is clearly a result in heightened removals, not a reduction in discharges.

Substance abuse allegations are down. Failure to protect allegations are up.

Manatee - Inv, Ver, Rmvl - Substance Abuse (3-month average)

The explanation offered in the media by child welfare professionals is that the number of removals is a reflection of an on-going heroin and opiate problem in Manatee County. This would suggest an increase in substance abuse cases. DCF trend reports show that “Substance Misuse” as an allegation is actually on the decline through this period. The 3-month average number of allegations of substance misuse have gone up from 170.5 in September 2013 to 200.8  in July 2014, and are now at 143.5. This is not the surge I was expecting and is consistent with a statewide decrease in the number of cases marked as “substance misuse.” The verification rate for these cases, however, has gone up — from 10.91% in December 2013 to 23.33% in December 2015. Either cases are becoming more severe, or DCF is categorizing and assessing risk differently in these cases. The abrupt increase, again, suggests a policy change.

Manatee - Inv, Ver, Rmvl - Failure to Protect (3-month average)In comparison, “Failure to Protect” allegations appear to better match the removal curve, and are closed out as “verified” at much higher percentages. This could be a reflection of DCF’s policies on categorizing alleged maltreatment. “Failure to protect” is not a useful category if it does not include failure to protect from what. 


Relatives to the rescue.

Manatee - Relatives # Graph

Since September 2006, relatives have been the predominate placement resource for kids in Manatee County. This is consistent with patterns across the state in areas facing similar expansions. Smaller expansions in Manatee County’s OOHC population from 2009 to 2013 were largely absorbed by relatives as well. Beginning in September 2013, however, all placement types began to expand, with relative placements expanding the most, and non-relatives and facility placements growing at slower rates. Family foster homes expanded until around August 2015, when they appear to have largely maxed out available placements at approximately 170 children; while all other placement types have continued to grow and show no current signs of reduction.

Relative placements may have peaked this summer and may be on the decline as cases close out and the removal rates come down. Family foster placements also have been on the decline as the numbers begin to drop. Notably, there is no similar drop in non-relative or facility foster numbers. This suggests that children in those placements experience different permanency paths from children in the homes of relatives or foster families.

Manatee - Relatives % Map The expansion clearly required a lot of reliance on relatives, but Manatee County and its CBC are not the state’s most heavily dependent on relative placements. In July 2016, Sarasota YMCA’s OOHC population was 42% relative caregivers.  The areas marked red in the map to the right were all well over 50% relative placements as of July 2016.  The CBCs with the lowest reliance on relatives have numbers below 40%, shown in deep green.


Discharges are lagging, but should be picking up soon.

Manatee - Discharge Graph

Manatee - Discharges % of OOHC

As would be expected, the number of discharges has been rising with the increase in OOHC, but discharges as a percentage of OOHC has been on the decline. This indicates that the increase in OOHC has resulted in a slow-down of the normal permanency path of cases, perhaps due to lack of resources, lack of available pre-adoptive and guardianship placements, or just lack of room on the court docket to handle cases effectively. Expansions cause slowdowns across the board.

Seen below, reunification has overwhelmingly become the predominate discharge type, recently hitting 77% of all discharges. Statewide, reunifications tend to be approximately 50% of all discharges. Guardianships and aging out have remained constant, while adoptions have risen very slightly. These numbers go against statewide trends, where reunifications have been steady and guardianships significantly down in recent years. The large number of reunifications raises the question of whether these children could have been served in their homes as opposed to removed. For the children who are found to have been appropriately removed, credit is due for high reunification rates.

Manatee - Discharge Types

Disproportionality issues galore.

Manatee - Race Count

Drastic expansions are interesting opportunities to study disproportionality effects. As the graph to the left shows, the expansion saw a significant increase in the number of white children (orange line) in OOHC. Initially there was a slight increase in black children (blue line), but that appears to have reduced and then stabilized. The numbers of “other race”children (green line) appears to have remained steady to slightly rising.

Manatee - Race % of OOHCViewed as a percentage of OOHC, the initial expansion raised the relative population of black children, but that number quickly returned back to lower levels as the number of white children continued to increase through 2015. The current expected OOHC composition in Manatee County is consistent with its historical values: 72% white, 20% black, and 7% other race. Statewide, the composition is approximately 60% white, 30% black, and 8% other, and growing whiter.

Manatee - Age PercentInterestingly the expansion seems to have affected children ages 10-14 (yellow line) the most. Before the expansion, this population regularly comprised about 25% of the OOHC population, but is now projected to be approximately 28%. After an initial spike in children ages 0-4 (blue line) beginning in November 2013, the next spike is found in ages 10-14 (yellow line) beginning in March 2014. Interestingly, ages 5-9 (light blue line) have seen steady decrease over the years and now make up approximately only 8% of the OOHC population.

Manatee - 12+ count

Finally, the number of children in OOHC for 12 or more months shows significant age effects. The 10-14 and 15-17 populations who have been in care longer than 12 months are expected to increase drastically over the next 16 months, while the numbers of children ages 0-4 and 5-9 are expected to remain fairly constant. These trends are reflective of the fact that older children face significant barriers to permanency once removed from their homes. The effects of this expansion will be felt for years to come as children in these cohorts eventually age out.

Is this just a Manatee County thing?

Curiously, this same expansion pattern is found in other counties around the state, but by no means in all of them. The following circuits and counties saw spikes; the dates in parentheses are eyeballed estimates of when the spikes began:

  • Twentieth Circuit – Charlotte (August 2014)
  • Seventh Circuit – Flagler (September 2014), Putnam (January 2014), St. John’s (July 2014), Volusia (July 2014)
  • Third Circuit – Columbia (September 2014), Dixie (September 2014)
  • Fifth Circuit – Hernando (February 2015), Marion (February 2015), Sumter (March 2015)
  • Eighteenth Circuit (September 2014) – Brevard (September 2014)

As an example, here is the Putnam County OOHC/IHC chart:

Putnam - Overview

The Putnam County spike is by far the most pronounced. Putnam County’s OOHC population went from 62 to 248 children in just two years. Its IHC population, however, did not rise by equal amounts. Putnam went from 27 children placed with relatives to 161 during this time. Putnam also experienced similar demographic waves: first a surge of black children, then an uptick of white children — first a surge of infants, then 10-14 year olds. Putnam County has dealt with discharges differently from Manatee, relying more on adoptions and permanent guardianships, but in many months the county has few if any discharges at all. Based on my google news searches, though, Putnam did not experience any similar drug problems. This spike is something else.

Is this a drug epidemic or a policy change? (Yes)

What happened in Florida Child Welfare policy in September 2014 that so many counties experienced extreme spikes in their OOHC populations all at once? SB 1666 happened, a new Secretary had been recently appointed, and the debate about how to handle abuse investigations continued. SB 1666 formalized and, in some areas, greatly reduced the Department’s ability to rely on safety plans in lieu of formal court intervention. The expansion in removals into relative placements in lockstep with the change in law suggests that these are cases that would have been resolved with a safety plan — “grandmother agrees to supervise contact between mother and child” instead of court involvement: “grandmother is ordered to supervise contact…”.  Manatee County may have had the unfortunate misfortune to experience a heroin epidemic at the same time as their discretion to work with families informally was reduced. This is what the pendulum of child welfare looks like.

This look at the numbers does not solve these counties’ placement problem, but it does suggest one important question: do all of those children really need to be removed and court involved?


Florida Child Welfare Stats for July 2016: OOHC=23,054, IHC=12,262

At the request of a distinguished commenter, I will try to help readers make sense of the statistics found in the Child Welfare Data Dashboard.  To that end, I will try posting monthly updates — corresponding with DCF’s data updates — with an eye toward big picture trends and projections of things to come. The projections are crude, based on the trends seen variable by variable. We haven’t tried to model the system or build projections based on outside factors. But maybe in the future we will. 

The July 2016 numbers are pretty steady from June. The summer months traditionally have fewer investigations — and this month was no exception. We should expect seasonal investigation increases of up to 20% in some areas once school begins.

Statewide abuse allegations continued to rise to 18,266 in May 2016, up 7.6% from 16,968 in May of the previous year. Statewide verification rates in July were down to 13.3% of all investigations compared to 14.4% in May the previous year. On the other hand, Statewide removal rates continued to rise slightly at 1,275, up from 1,230 in July of the previous year.

Removals were highest in Miami-Dade (125 children) and Hillsborough (123 children). Removals per 10,000 were highest in the relatively small county of Desoto (19.32 per 10,000). By CBC, removals were highest for Our Kids, the Eckerds, and Kids Central. Per 10,000 by CBC, removals were highest in the Northwest, Northeast, and Sarasota area. Family Support Services had the lowest removals at 0.972 per 10,000.

Relative caregivers continued to dominate the out-of-home care system at 10,217 or  44.32% of all children placed out of their homes. Family foster homes came in second at  7,217 or 31.30%. We are in the middle of an interesting transition for third place: nonrelative placements overtook facility foster homes in September 2015 and the trend appears to be stable. In July 2016, non-relatives were 11.08% and facilities were 10.40% of all out-of-home care placements. The trend is not seen in the Southeast Region, which historically relies heavily on facility foster placements.

There were 1,127 children discharged in July 2016, up 8.1% from 1,042 in July of the previous year. Over half, 53.8%, of discharges were reunifications, while 21.7% were guardianships, and 14.6% were adoptions. Discharges due to youth aging out of care accounted for 9.76% of total discharges.


These projections use very simple linear models built into Tableau to look at future trends along each variable independently. These projections are based on current trends and do not take into account any outside factors: agency policy changes and responses to public events can completely negate or reverse the course of trends, so caution is warranted. Currently the projections suggest the following regional patterns.

Prediction Header - Statewide

Statewide: expect modest increases in the OOHC population as summer ends, and a decrease in IHC driven largely by a slight reduction in the number of discharges from OOHC across the state. We may be seeing the end of the expansion that began in June 2013 with the exit of Secretary Wilkins — about half of the Regions have already begun their contractions. Expect a continued decrease in the number of children placed with relatives while the number of children in family foster homes and non-relative placements continues to increase.

Prediction Header - NW

Northwest Region: expect the number of removals to continue to significantly outpace the number of discharges, resulting in increased OOHC population. Expect the number of IHC cases to stabilize as the region reaches the roughly 2:1 ratio found around the rest of the state. The number of family and facility foster placements has shown no sign of increasing, so expect even higher reliance on relative placements and lack of placement “growing pains” for youth who do not have available kin. The spike in both OOHC and IHC during 2015 appear unique to this region and deserve more exploration. Beware of “pendulum” swings as stakeholders become aware of steep shifts and attempt to over-correct.

Prediction Header - NE

Northeast Region: expect relatively steady OOHC and IHC populations with a reduced reliance on family foster homes and slight increase in non-relative placements. We may be seeing the end of the current expansion. If discharge rates continue to remain low, expect a possible increase in the OOHC population not shown in the graph above.

Prediction Header - Cent

Central Region: expect an increase in OOHC and IHC populations, driven largely by lower discharge rates and historically irregular case closure rates. The current expansion appears to be continuing. Consider working with courts to review cases that are ready for termination of supervision more consistently. Expect a reduction in relative caregiver placements as cases from the 2014 spike continue to close out. Also expect an increased reliance on non-relative placements as family foster placements do not appear to be rising.

Prediction Header - SunC

Suncoast Region: expect a continued increase in OOHC and IHC populations, driven largely by a decrease in discharges and intermittent spikes in discharges. The current expansion appears to be continuing. Expect a continued reduction in relative placements as children placed with relatives enter permanent guardianships. Family foster home capacity has remained fairly constant over the past 9 years, which does not reflect the reality of a growing OOHC population. Expect “growing pains” if more foster homes are not recruited or discharges are not spread out more evenly.

Prediction Header - SE

Southeast Region: expect a large decrease in OOHC population as cases from the current expansion continue to clear out. Expect a decrease in relative caregiver placements and a relatively steady number of other placements. Beware of “pendulum” swings as stakeholders become aware of steep shifts and attempt to over-correct.

Prediction Header - S

Southern Region: expect a slight decrease in OOHC and an increasingly steep reduction in IHC as discharges and closures outpace removals. We may be nearing the end of the current retraction. Permanent guardianships and adoptions have been increasing over time and show no signs of slowing, while reunifications have been steady or slightly decreasing. As cases from the previous expansion clear out, expect an increasing reliance on family foster homes as opposed to relatives.


The numbers in these graphs are from the DCF Child Welfare Trend Reports. We have made every effort to display the data as originally published by the Department, but we encourage readers to verify any data in the original reports before using it for anything important. The predictions are very limited and based solely on information found in the trend reports. No one should take any actions on these projections alone. 

Help test our Florida Child Welfare System Dashboard

Good morning readers,

Our office receives a lot of calls from folks with questions about DCF statistics. I usually point them to the Trend Reports, kept by the Center for Child Welfare. The Trend Reports are amazing repositories of big-picture and local-level details. The people who maintain them do a fantastic job. The Trend Reports’ only limitation is that they are designed to be general and can take time to navigate and configure to reach the specific answers you’re looking for.

I’ve spent the past few weeks trying to re-visualize the Trends Report data in a way that answers the most common questions people have about the child welfare system: how many kids are in it?, are removals going up?, is the system growing or shrinking?, is there a foster home crisis?, how many kids are reunified?, and does the child welfare system target children of color?

I am happy (and somewhat nervous) to present the first draft of the results: the Child Welfare System Dashboard – BETA. We are working on finding the Dashboard a permanent home, but for now it is available on tableau.com. I ask you to please support the project by helping test it and giving your feedback (at rlatham@law.miami.edu) if you find errors, have suggestions, or want to see specific questions answered based on the data.

Thank you!

dashboard screenshot