Attorney: “I don’t have to file a motion for every little thing.” Appellate Court: “Oh really?”

The Third District Court of Appeal reversed an order granting supervised visits yesterday because the trial court entered the order without proper notice to the Department. The opinion is surprisingly long for a simple “no notice, reversed” ruling, and the lone footnote may explain why:

1 In light of the statutory obligations and clear case law on the issue of modification of visitation, it was inappropriate of counsel to tell the judge that “I don’t have to file a motion for every little thing,” in response to DCF’s objection that it had not been properly noticed.

The attorney is correct. You don’t have to file a motion and give notice if your opponent doesn’t object.

Two cases out of Florida show the bias against fathers in child welfare

Let’s talk about fathers for a second. One critique of child welfare law is that it puts a significant burden on mothers while essentially ignoring fathers until they become inconvenient. Two cases out of Florida this month highlight this phenomenon.

In the first case, twin children were sheltered from their mother due to neglect. The father had been out-of-state in prison on drug charges for the twins’ whole life. He met the children only once when the mother brought them to see him while he was on a furlough pass. Once the case was commenced, he appeared at every hearing by phone and called the children during his furloughs — but not while in prison, he said, because he could only make collect calls. After the mother did not comply with her case plan, the Department filed for TPR on both parents. While the trial was pending, the mother died in a car accident. The father then learned that he would be released from prison five days after the scheduled TPR trial. He had a place to live and a job lined up. There children were not in a pre-adoptive home. The Court terminated his rights anyway. The First DCA reversed the termination.

In the second case, a child was sheltered at birth after testing positive for cocaine. The mother was married, but estranged from her husband. The biological father was on the birth certificate. Under the law, this scenario makes the husband the legal father. The family was advised how to fix the paternity issues and the biological father was sent away until he addressed his legal status. He filed a notice with the Putative Father Registry, but took no other action. A year passed, the mother did not comply with her case plan, and the biological father then filed legal motions to establish his rights to the child after TPR was already filed. The Fourth DCA held that the year and a half delay was too long — he had no parental rights because he was not fast enough in legally asserting them.

The problem here is twofold: first that the system was perfectly happy to ignore the fathers until they asserted their rights against a TPR; and second that the fathers appeared content (or at least not incentivized) to let the mothers do all the hard work to get the kids back until they failed. The trial judge in the First DCA case terminated a father’s rights despite no clear plan for permanency for the child — the children would have to build a relationship with either the father or a pre-adoptive family — and despite no apparent effort to actually nurture that relationship for over a year. (The mother, not the State, took the child to see the father on his furlough in Mississippi before the case came in.) The Fourth DCA, in its written opinion, unfavorably compared its bio father’s effort to those shown by the foster parents’ — a poor comparison given that the whole child welfare system is designed to recruit, train, and support foster parents (well, comparatively speaking), whereas the father was dismissed from the case and left to find his way back on his own. The father may have reasonably determined that the best course was to allow the mother to reunify and then reconcile with her and the kids, especially since he himself was not accused of any wrongdoing.

Neither of these cases had to end this way. We can resolve messy paternity issues early with little effort — especially when the legal father is completely absent. We can make concerted efforts to build relationships between fathers and their children, even if they’re out-of-state or in prison. What we shouldn’t do is ignore half of a child’s family.

Here are some resources on doing that:

Engaging Fathers and Paternal Family Members (childwelfare.gov)

Barriers to Father Involvement in the Child Welfare System (fatherhood.gov)

Exploring the bias against fathers in the Child Welfare System (ucdavis.edu)

Let’s talk about the IL Programs and justice

The Third DCA ruled against our clinic yesterday, holding that access to federal Education and Training Vouchers (ETV) could be restricted by the State through the creation of programs with additional eligibility rules. While I disagree with the reasoning of the Court, I’m writing here about the original source of injustice in this case.

Our clinic was retained by an amazing young woman who needed help during her Independent Living years. From the opinion:

Cormier was born on November 11, 1995. She lived in the Bahamas with her mother until she was fourteen years old and then moved to Florida to live with her father. On October 2, 2013, DCF removed Cormier from her father’s care due to alleged physical abuse and domestic violence, and thereafter, she entered the dependency court system. Cormier was sheltered briefly and then placed into the temporary custody of a non-relative caregiver, where she remained for approximately six weeks before turning eighteen. As the hearing on the petition for dependency was scheduled for a date after Cormier turned eighteen, the hearing was never conducted and the dependency case was closed.

Independent Living benefits provide case management support and financial resources to kids aging out of the foster care system to help them be successful, and to help them avoid homelessness, criminal justice involvement, and the host of other bad outcomes that statistics show foster kids endure.  The IL Program has various sub-programs with differing eligibility criteria. The most liberal program is the Extended Foster Care Program, which only requires a young person to age out of care in a licensed placement and participate in school, work, or similar activities. The Post-secondary Education Support Services (PESS) program is the most restrictive — it requires a young person to be adjudicated dependent, age out of licensed foster care, have been in foster care for at least 6 months, and maintain good academic standing in college or vocational school.

Knowing these criteria, certain facts about our client’s case stand out: Her placement in a unlicensed placement made her ineligible for any IL Program even though that decision is largely not up to the child. Statewide, the Department is relying more heavily on unlicensed non-relative placements largely due to the lack of licensed foster placements. In November 2013 when our client aged out, only about 8.6% of children under DCF supervision were placed with non-relatives. In March 2017, that had risen to 11.93% — that’s 8,623 kids who will not be eligible for IL support if they age out.

The fact that her case closed without an adjudication means she would not have been eligible for PESS even if she were in a licensed placement for 6 months. Cases shouldn’t take 6 months to adjudicate, you say? They can if they go on appeal. And the Florida Supreme Court ruled in O.I.C.L. that the appeal of a child who ages out of care is moot. It would not have been moot to this young woman, who is striving to be successful with all of the history and none of the support given to a narrow group of foster kids. Nine-thousand kids in non-relative placements and an unknowable number of kids whose cases languish in the courts will be in her shoes soon.

George Sheldon in talks to head Our Kids

The Chicago Tribune is reporting that George Sheldon is in talks with Our Kids to become their new CEO. Sheldon is the current Director of the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services, and has a long career in politics and child welfare (wikipedia).

According to the Tribune, Our Kids’ board chair Keith Ward supports Sheldon. “He wants to come home. … We’re very fortunate,” Ward told the board, the Tribune reports. “He’s just No. 1 on anybody’s list.” But back in Illinois, Sheldon is facing ethics probes due to favoritism in contracting and hiring, and public controversy over the death of a child one day after investigators declared her safe. The Miami Herald got Sheldon’s side of the story.

Sheldon was Secretary of Florida DCF from 2008 to 2011 when Governor Scott took office. During his tenure Sheldon continued the reduction in out-of-home care started under Secretary Butterworth. To my knowledge, no former DCF Secretary has ever become CEO at a CBC.

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Florida DCF contracts are worth billions – where does the money go?

I was wondering who holds the largest DCF contracts in Florida. The answer was right on the Florida Department of Financial Services website (thank you, Mr. Atwater), which lists public contracts with an ending date of February 29, 2012 or later.

I created a tableau where you can explore the DCF vendors by name, and see the list of contracts with details on their purpose, dates, and amounts. Click on the contracts to see their entry in the Florida Accountability Tracking System, including the contract documents, deliverables, payments, and audits.

The answer is that (depending on how you count) 12 organizations have received about half of DCF’s business since DFS started keeping track online.  Of that dozen, six organizations were CBCs, four were behavioral health networks, and the final two work with sexually violent offenders and psychiatric patients. Smaller CBCs and BHNs make up the next 25%, with the final quarter split among hundreds of small organizations, all the way down to air conditioner repair jobs and copying fees.

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The total contract amounts need to be understood with a dose of context. Our Kids, for example, is the vendor for $1 billion over 10 years (5 years original, with 5 years renewed). The payment amounts get adjusted year to year based on statutory and contractual terms. And the contract amount is not the total cost of the child welfare system when you also factor in state, county, municipal, and charitable funding for all of the people and organizations who make their living adjacent to the system (including, for now at least, me).

Still, a billion dollars is a huge contract and the question of how it is being managed in Miami is particularly relevant today when Our Kids’ leadership team has resigned but not left office and DCF is holding stakeholder interviews to determine how people fighting to drink from that spigot think things are going.