Categories
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.

Categories
Charts & Graphs

What happened in March?

A lot of people have been asking, hypothesizing, and, frankly, guessing about what effect a global pandemic and quarantine coupled with unprecedented levels of governmental and community response will have on child welfare measures. Anyone who claims certainty right now is selling something. We really don’t know.

We do have a few new data points, however. Florida DCF released its dashboard numbers last week, and they show a reduction in intakes. It’s not nearly as large as I expected. You can get different numbers depending on how you count, so there’s plenty of room for salesmanship, but I would say anywhere from 10-17% down is defensible. A lot of other measures were affected way more. Many were not affected at all.

I created a dashboard to look at all of this. I made it for COVID-19 but you can also review other events in Florida child welfare history. Below are the things I noticed in the data.

Intakes were down

I’m going to use investigation intakes as the measure for this discussion, mostly because DCF has a dashboard on those. Intakes, as far as I understand DCF’s documentation, are completed calls to the hotline that are either accepted for investigation or screened out. I don’t think it includes abandoned calls.

First, let’s look at the actual numbers. Did the floor fall out of intakes in March? Not at all. They were in the middle of the decade’s high and low. Back in January 2010, we got 8,000 fewer calls per month and removed a lot more kids.

Florida statewide investigation intakes. Data source: DCF Dashboards.

It’s hard to read charts with all those ups and downs. To smooth things out, let’s take the year-over-year change in March of each year instead. What you see below is that intakes were down about 10% from March 2019 to March 2020. But, they were also down 8% from March 2018 to March 2019 after being up for five prior years. You could call that a 2-point or a 25% decrease from 8 to 10, but it doesn’t really look like that much to me. It could be part of an ongoing trend that started when Governor DeSantis took office. Again, the number was somewhere in the middle of the decade’s high and low.

Florida abuse investigation intakes for March of each year above, with percent change from previous year below.

Maybe March is just weird. Maybe the previous administration did a huge child abuse awareness campaign in March that increased calls. The next chart looks at all the months at once. It’s a little spaghetti-esque, but you can see the general trends: January and February were pretty normal, but March is down over the last two years. It’s not lower than the summer months, but it’s definitely been dropping in the last two years.

Florida abuse intakes year to year with one line per month.

We need a way to compare months to each other over different years. We can do that using seasonal decomposition. I’ve used this before and always get a lot of questions about it. So, as an example, if you are in the business of selling sunscreen, your sales will go up and down during the year because of the weather (these are called “seasonal factors”). Those seasonal factors are pretty stable over time — summer sales will be more than winter sales every single year. But your sales also change over time due to other forces like the economy or how people feel about tanning (“trends”). Those effects are not the same year to year. To really determine if you had a good month in sales compared to the past, you would want to remove the seasonal effects and the trends so that you’re comparing what is left over (sometimes called the “noise” or “error” value). So let’s do that for abuse calls.

Below are the seasonal factors for statewide intakes. These are the predictable ups and downs you see year to year. The colors represent the seasons to make it prettier. You can see that abuse investigation intakes go up about 12% in April, then down about 10-11% in the summer. That corresponds to those very regular ups and down in the first chart above. There are still around 20,000 abuse calls per month in the Summer — it’s just 22% fewer than in the Spring. Just like in the sunscreen example, we will adjust the numbers to account for these normal ups and downs that are caused by the seasons.

Florida abuse intakes seasonal factors for 2010-2020.

Next we have to filter out the bigger trends by taking a moving average. (I’m using a +/- 6 month median window here.) You can see that abuse calls have remained mostly flat. There was a slight rise at the beginning of 2016 and then again in June 2017. Since January 2019 (a new administration), we’ve seen a slightly decrease. The ends of trend lines are always bumpy, but especially when you have a giant worldwide pandemic sitting right off the edge. As we get more data, this line will get smoother.

Florida abuse intakes trend line. Uses a 13-month moving median.

Now for the magic: if you take the original DCF values and remove both the seasonal effects and the trend line, you get a flat line with easily comparable ups and downs. I turned it into a bar chart to make it easier to read below. I also added two horizontal lines to mark four standard deviations from the mean. (Thanks to anomaly.io for sharing their work.) Anything higher or lower than that is probably an anomaly.

So, what does the graph show? Intakes were probably about 16% below the decade’s seasonal average in March. And, that was very, very rare.

Seasonal decomposition for Florida investigation intakes. The horizontal lines in the lower chart indicate 4 standard deviations from the mean. Anything crossing those lines is likely an anomaly.

There is one other similar dip in intakes. It occured in September 2017 during Hurricane Irma when intakes were 15% lower than expected. There are two smaller dips in June 2018 and June 2019 that I have no explanation for. The highest spike in the other direction was March 2011 (+13%) right after the Barahona case hit the news.

What does all this tell us? That intake numbers dropped in March: 10% over last year or 16% over a typical March in the last decade. Those are hurricane level numbers.

What doesn’t it tell us? Whether those lost calls would have resulted in removals or whether they were low-risk calls that easily got pushed aside when other things became more pressing. There were still 25,000 intakes done. Investigations take about 60 days, so we won’t know more until later. Even then the picture will be murky because we won’t know what wasn’t called in or how to account for a workforce that can’t do in-home inspections except in urgent cases.

What else don’t we know? We don’t know what April will look like. I’ve heard people predict that cases will go up, which makes some intuitive sense. But the data does not show that actually happens after hurricanes, and we don’t know whether this downturn will be a passing moment or a new normal that changes the numbers forever.

What else changed?

Intakes have been getting all the press, but here are some other statewide child welfare measures that are also worth looking at.

Verifications jumped up 12%. You don’t even need math — you can see this in the DCF data. Verifications had been higher than expected for a couple of months, but this may by the March 2020 numbers making the rest of 2020 look stronger than is real. For comparison, verifications went down significantly (-12%) the month of Hurricane Irma. There was no rebound, which is slight evidence that maybe they weren’t that bad.

Seasonal decomposition for Florida investigation verifications.

Removals were pretty normal. They were down, but not by much more than a ton of other months that didn’t have a pandemic in them. For comparison, removals were down 20% during Hurricane Irma and never really bounced back after that. Again, that might be evidence that those were lower-risk removals. The only extraordinary spike in removals was in March 2011 after the Barahona case. I wonder if any of those were removals from adoptive parents?

Seasonal decomposition for Florida removals.

Exits from care were low but normal. Exits were down 11%. For Hurricane Irma, exits went down 20% and rebounded over 4 months.

Seasonal decomposition for Florida exits from care.

Reunifications were very normal. It’s interesting that there were lots of times in the last decade when reunifications dipped low, but this wasn’t one of them. I can’t explain that spike in 2010.

Seasonal decomposition for Florida reunifications.

Guardianships were down 34%. You can see this right in the data, too. During Hurricane Irma, guardianships went down 12%, so this really is a notable decline. That other giant dip is in February 2015, after Phoebe Jonchuck was found dead.

Seasonal decomposition for Florida exits to guardianship.

Adoptions were normal, maybe… I really like this one, because it shows how tricky this stuff is. First, adoptions are very seasonal — tons get done in June and November of each year. Also, when hurricanes and other events have suppressed adoptions in the past, they have shown large spikes a few months later to make up for the backlog.

We expect February to be 9.4% down from the year average. So it is unusual to see in February 2020 there was a giant spike (+64%) in adoptions before the event we expect to dampen the numbers. The increase was driven largely by the Central Region cranking out a lot of adoptions in February. If they saw a lockdown coming and rushed to finish pending adoptions, then that is an effect. If the spike happened because a few large sibling groups get adopted, then that is a coronavirus coincidence. Notice that March 2020 is registering in the numbers as normal, but looks very low. I expect these numbers to level out when we get a few more months of data to determine the wider trends.

Seasonal decomposition for Florida exits to adoption.

Everything else? The tableau dashboard lets you filter by region, CBC, circuit, or county. In addition to the measures above, it also lets you look at major maltreatment categories like substance abuse, domestic violence, physical abuse, sexual abuse, and inadequate supervision. I’ll update it next month when the new numbers come out.

Until then, have fun and stay safe!

Categories
Charts & Graphs

54 pages about 49 kids: The children who refused placement in Hillsborough County

Back in August, an ad hoc committee of the juvenile justice board in Hillsborough issued a lengthy report on the state of placement instability in their circuit. The report diagnosed the phenomenon of children refusing placement as a major source of that instability.

The committee concluded that “children under the care and custody of Florida’s child welfare system should not have the ability to refuse temporary placements that have been determined to be in their best interest by the parties charged with their care.” The committee recommended a new law to expand the “children in need of services” statute to permit foster children to be placed into staff secure facilities (i.e., 24-hour supervision) if they refused placement, were chronic runners, didn’t go to school, or didn’t comply with the treatment recommended. They could then be placed in a physically secure (i.e., lock-down) facility if they didn’t comply with the staff secure program.

The proposal initially struck me as well intended but misinformed. Foster kids can already be placed in staff secure facilities by DCF without a court order. Any group home can be converted to staff secure by upping the staffing ratio and making sure someone is awake at all times in the home. You don’t need a new legal regime for that — you need money.

Second, foster kids can be placed in physically secure programs through a DJJ commitment, a SIPP placement, a Marchman Act placement, or a Baker Act. All of those placements are extremely expensive and have a limited number of beds. The gatekeepers for those programs have to do constant triage to limit use of the programs to the neediest children. If you want to increase access to secure settings with intensive treatment, it will take money to expand the placement array. Once you have a sufficient array, you can start working with the less extreme cases described by the committee.

The report correctly notes that Florida’s foster care placement system is reactionary. It recommends data collection and analysis to create predictive models for which children will have future placement challenges, because “indisputable data on risk factors is not available and would be beneficial to decision making.” If you know me or have read anything on this blog, you know that I couldn’t pass that challenge up.

It turns out that Hillsborough has been logging when children refuse placement in FSFN since 2017. (This should be required for all CBCs.) There were 49 kids in the most recent version of the public database that had ever refused placement. Me and my team of intrepid students reviewed the complete history of all 49 kids, then the history of their most common placements, and then the whole placement array in Hillsborough. What we learned filled over 150 pages. I have broken it into a main report and an addendum that gives a narrative of the placement history of all 49 children. (The addendum will come out soon — it’s over 100 pages.) This post is a summary.

What we found was consistent with existing research on placement instability in foster care. The refusal children were disproportionately non-white teens with significant time in group home settings; but there were children as young as seven who refused. For the most part they were well-known to the system: the median number of placements prior to refusal was 21 (31 in total), and nearly 70% of their placements prior to refusal (75% in total) ended because the provider requested the child be removed. Being ejected by providers after placement was the most pronounced feature of children who refused placement. Most of the children refused only one or two times; and many spent more time at the agency’s office because no appropriate placement could be found than they did because they refused.

What surprised us was that children were slightly more stable after refusing placement than they were before, at least temporarily. The refusal episodes seemed to elicit an agency response that children’s previous placement instability did not. Usually the added stability was from the agency obtaining therapeutic placements, but sometimes stability came from negative causes, as some kids ran away for extended periods of time or were arrested. In some cases, it appeared that the children refused with a specific placement in mind they wanted to be in.

Speaking of arrest, the committee was mostly composed of DJJ professionals, so it makes sense that they were focused heavily on that population. However, it turned out that the children who refused placements were not any more seriously involved in the delinquency system than other unstable kids in foster care. They did, however, appear to have higher levels of mental health needs.

And that’s where Hillsborough is particularly failing. Our review of the system as a whole found a placement array that routinely played hot potato with high-needs children, bouncing them around in circles often back to placement they were just kicked out of. When I first read the committee’s report, my thought was “you’re describing an STGC — just open one.” Hillsborough has no Specialized Therapeutic Group Care programs, and instead sends children across the state to therapeutic programs. Locally it relies on group homes that rarely keep children more than a month on average and enhanced rate foster homes that keep kids a median of 4 days per placement. The problem isn’t the law; the problem is the array.

Our review disagrees with the committee’s report in another way: instability was in fact highly predictable and often began long before a child refused placement. Existing research shows that a child with 4+ placements has a 70% chance of additional instability, and a child with 6+ daily maladaptive behaviors has a 25% increase in risk of disruption per additional behavior. By reviewing the placement histories we found 131 highly unstable children in Hillsborough since 2017, many of whom had more than 50 placements. Only 38 of them had ever refused a placement, though. Refusal and non-compliance are not appropriate triggers for intervention — instability is.

Where we agree with the committee is this: Hillsborough needs to regain control over its array and create a clear escalation process for children who are serially ejected from placements. This will take a significant effort to change the culture. The burden should not be on the children to accept a 22nd placement failure or risk civil commitment for disobedience. The burden should be on the providers to work with children to never get to that level of instability.

Our full report is linked here. The addendum containing the narratives for all 49 children will be released soon. I hope this is helpful to people on the ground in Hillsborough.

Here are the documents via our dropbox:

A special thanks to the good folks at Print Farm for putting together the report and the graphics.

Categories
Charts & Graphs

Billion Dollar Babies

I sat on this post until after National Adoption Month because it seemed like the polite thing to do and because I didn’t have time to finish it until now. It’s about adoption. Not whether adoption is good or bad. My feelings about adoption are whatever my client’s feelings are — and it should be no surprise that some kids want to be adopted and others do not. Instead, this post is about adoption as a policy, a specific tool of the system to accomplish certain goals. It is specifically about how much that tool costs.

6 years of data

71,000 adopted children

1 billion dollars in subsidies

Categories
Charts & Graphs

A Reluctant Post About the Guardian ad Litem Program: Its Ethics, Efficacy, & Future

The Guardian ad Litem Program started as a scrappy community of advocates and gadflies who sought to bring attention and change to the dependency system. It is now a state agency that’s been appropriated over $600 million in the last 15 years. There has never been a comprehensive study to determine whether the Program accomplishes its goal of improving the lives of foster children. I looked at the Program’s performance numbers, first out of irritation, then curiosity, and ultimately the realization that we need more fact-based information about the “Second DCF” to answer the core questions surrounding its continued funding and structure. The questions explored here are whether the GAL Program is ethical, effective, and good for children? The answer to all three questions, it turns out, is the same.

Categories
Charts & Graphs

Plotting Permanency: Using the public FSFN database to explore exit patterns in Florida foster care

This post introduces a new public FSFN dashboard on permanency timing in Florida’s child welfare system. If you want to just play with the dashboard, you can find it here. All but one of the graphics in this post come from the dashboard.

Every year, in legislatures across the country, well-meaning people propose bills to speed up permanency for foster kids. Permanency is a psychological concept focused on attachment, belonging, and community. Those are hard to legislate, so people focus instead on procedural definitions. The legal meaning of permanency is to close the court case and get the state out of a family’s life for as long as possible. In the process, hopefully leaving the child better than the system found them.

That closure could happen by returning a child home to a parent, placing the child in a guardianship, or having the child adopted. It could also mean a child aging out. The end result is largely the same to the state: one less case on its docket, and varying ongoing financial obligations depending on the way the child exited care. The path a case takes can change a child’s life.

Categories
Charts & Graphs

I made a “Yelp for Child Welfare” Because We Need to Know More (Not Less) About Foster Care Providers

This post introduces a new public FSFN dashboard: the Placement Provider Info Dashboard. If you want to jump straight there, feel free. You should click the fullscreen button in the bottom right corner. Below is the why and how of it.

There is a well-meaning bill working through the legislature that would exempt the names of foster parents from Florida’s public record laws. (Current law exempts their addresses, financials, and the floorplans of their houses.) The bill cites four “public necessities” to bar access to foster parents’ names: (1) it will help keep foster children’s names confidential, (2) it will prevent “unwanted contact” by the press, (3) it will prevent “unwanted contact” by the child’s relatives [i.e., parents], (4) not doing so would compromise foster parents’ privacy. The reasons don’t really stand up to scrutiny. More importantly, public access to information on foster placements is actually a good thing.

The elephant in the room is named Candi Johnson

Let’s start by acknowledging that Candi Johnson, the mother of two children in foster care, orchestrated the shooting of an elderly foster parent in Miami. She went to the foster home with her teenage son and demanded the children. When the foster parent fought back, the son shot her and fled with Candi Johnson and the kids. The foster parent is a hero for defending the kids even when she had no idea who was after them. The media reports that Candi Johnson had a long history of violence and had absconded with her children before. She is currently pending trial for attempted murder, kidnapping, armed burglary, and interfering with child custody.

The public records exemption would not have prevented Candi Johnson and her son from shooting the foster parent. The list of foster parents in the FSFN database has nearly 68,000 people on it. Candi Johnson’s kids would have aged out before she figured out which provider was caring for her children that way. More importantly, Candi Johnson did not use public records to find the foster home. Everyone in the neighborhood knew the woman was a foster parent. Everyone on the case knew Candi Johnson was violent. The foster mother didn’t know who Candi Johnson was when she banged on the door — or else she wouldn’t have opened it and maybe wouldn’t have accepted the placement. Having foster caregivers meet with parents in a supervised setting when they first take in kids could have actually prevented this. Further increasing the separation between them would not.

The bill isn’t about the kids

Candi Johnson stirred up a lot of latent anxieties that some (but certainly not all) foster caregivers feel about the families of the children they take in. The sponsor of the bill says that DCF received calls from “several” foster parents that they would quit if their names were not protected. I received a comment from one foster parent saying the same. The problem is that the bill doesn’t protect foster parents from the people they (rightly or wrongly) are afraid of. It does, however, make it harder to identify wrongdoing by DCF or other foster parents towards the kids they care about.

Let’s start with the bill’s first goal: protecting children’s privacy. The bill doesn’t actually do that. Having the names of foster parents does not tell me the names of the kids in their homes. If we want to keep foster children’s information confidential then we would also include provisions making it illegal for foster care providers to post about the child online, including pictures and over-sharing facebook posts. That’s how most parents in the system find their kids — a mutual friend spots the pictures and forwards them.

If we were serious about not disclosing a child’s foster care status, the bill would have provisions aimed at school personnel who tell a child’s classmates and protective investigators who question neighbors and disclose more than they should. We would also shut down National Adoption Day and Heart Gallery events where kids are brought to one place with giant signs that say “foster care” and television cameras rolling. Nobody is particularly worried about any of that.

A public records request on foster parents would currently give you a name and maybe a zip code, but nothing on the individual kids. You can get that much from a google search (and more). There is actually a much bigger and more immediate leak of information about foster children: the court hearings are open to the public. I have been in countless hearings where essentially this exchange happened in front of a room full of strangers waiting on other cases:

CLERK: Calling the Case of [insert actual name of the child or parents]. All parties please announce.

[everyone, including the parents and children go around and say their actual legal names]

JUDGE: Are the foster parents here? Please just use their initials.

[nobody mentions that there is no law that says foster parents get to be anonymous in court hearings]

FOSTER PARENT: J.M. Good morning, Your Honor.

JUDGE: Ok, we’re here today for a status on medical treatment. Did the child go to the gynecologist for an STD check? She was sexually assaulted. I am very concerned that you did not take her sooner.

CASE MANAGER: Yes, the child is present and can report. She tested negative.

CHILD: [MORTIFIED.]

We accept that the hearings are open because we believe the system is better when it works in public. In that context, foster parents’ names are not more sensitive than a child’s history of abuse. Foster parents are good people who largely volunteer to help kids and families that need it. They do not, however, have stronger privacy interests than the actual children and families in the system. When you sign up for this work, you sign up for it in public.

Second, the bill seeks to limit foster parents’ names because disclosure could lead to “unwanted contact” from the child’s “relatives.” This also won’t work and is actually a bad policy goal. Foster parents, parents, relatives, case managers, guardians ad litem, and therapy dogs all sit outside court together, sometimes waiting hours for the case to be called. In most courthouses it’s impossible to hide. And they shouldn’t want to hide: if foster parents are following the Quality Parenting Initiative co-parenting guidelines, then they use that time to talk with the parents and relatives to get to know them and the children better. I hope this sounds as direct as I mean it: a foster parent who doesn’t want contact with a child’s relatives should look for other ways to help children. Fostering isn’t for you.

There may be times when it’s not safe to engage in co-parenting with the child’s family, such as in Candi Johnson’s case. In those situations, court orders and injunctions directed at the parties on the case are the right remedy. Limiting the public’s access to information about foster care providers doesn’t solve the problem: the child’s family already has the foster caregiver’s identity information, or can easily get it by reading the Case Plan or by waiting in the parking lot for 20 minutes. In cases where there are serious safety concerns, there should be serious security responses. A general public records exemption is not a cure.

Finally, I’m not a First Amendment scholar, but “unwanted contact by the press” is why we have public records laws — the press and other watchdogs are supposed to investigate and sometimes that investigation is unwanted. The foster care system is a billion-dollar-a-year government industry. The fact that it recruits and underpays volunteers to perform some of its essential functions does not insulate it from scrutiny.

Now for why it’s actually good to make this information public.

Public information helps make better decisions

After publishing the Visualizing Foster Care Instability project, I received a lot of comments asking for a dashboard that gives information about the foster care providers. I attended a Florida Youth Shine quarterly meeting where a young person still in foster care said in a session, “There should be some way for us to know about placements before we go there. We should know as much about them as they do about us.” That resonated with me. We wouldn’t stay at a hotel without reading the reviews, but we expect foster kids to just show up at a house in the middle of the night and take it on faith that it will be safe.

We should know as much about them as they do about us.

– Florida Youth Shine Member (age 17)

So I made something: The Florida Foster Care Provider Dashboard. (I’m not really good at naming things.) The goal is to put everything we know about foster care providers in one place so that advocates and the public can make better decisions on how the system operates.

It’s functional, not pretty. I recommend viewing it in full screen because it has a lot of parts. Here’s what it looks like:

Placement Provider Info for foster parent “Tra. Dav.”

Here’s what you can learn from it:

  • How long do kids stay with ____? This chart in the top-right shows the distribution of how long a provider’s placements lasted. A provider’s average placement length may be skewed due to a few kids they kept for years. This chart shows the real breakdown. You can set it to measure in days, weeks, months, or years. Above, you can see that this provider had 315 placements in total and 134 that lasted less than a week. The average placement length was 45 days, but the median was only 9 days. This is not a stable placement for most kids who go there.
  • What kind of placement is this? The two boxes in the bottom left break down DCF’s own designation of the placement type. Above you can see that this provider was almost exclusively a foster care provider (orange bar), but spent 16 days as a relative placement, and 4 as a group home. The Service Type shows that this home was mostly for kids aged 13-17.
  • Why do kids leave this placement? The third box on the bottom left shows the reasons that placements with this provider ended. You can see above that 101 placements ended “in accordance with the case plan,” which usually means pursuant to a court order, while 61 placements ended because the child ran away. Twenty kids aged out of this home.
  • How has it changed over time? The box in the bottom right corner show the complete placement history for this provider. You can see that they started fostering in 2003 and had their last placement in 2018. Over time, placements with this provider have gotten shorter and shorter. That’s fairly normal for the long-time placements. The first few placements are usually the longest.
  • What about some summary stats? Right in the middle are the summary stats that I’ve calculated for the provider: number of children, number of placements, average placement length, median placement length, average miles kids moved from the last placement, and average concurrent kids (meaning how many children were placed there simultaneously on average).

I’ve also created Provider Flags that alert you to certain questions you might want to ask about a placement before putting a child there. They are found in the pink box right in the middle of the dashboard. The flags are based on the objective criteria below.

  • Death of Child: The provider had at least one placement where the end reason was “Death of Child”.
  • High Reunification, Adoption, Age Out, or Guardianship: The provider was placement to at least 6 children and more than 50% of them went on to reach the stated permanency goal. This does not mean the children exited care from the provider directly.
  • High Runaway: The provider had at least 6 placements and more than 25% of placements ended in the child running away.
  • High Turnover: The provider had at least 25 placements and more than 50% of placements ended in under 30 days.
  • High Disruption: The provider had at least 25 placements and more than 50% of placements ended because the provider requested a change, the child requested a change, or the placement “disrupted.”
  • High Concurrency: Children with this provider had an average of 10 or more other children placed there concurrently. This could be either because the provider’s capacity is 10 or more children or because the high turnover rate caused 10 or more children to pass through the provider.
  • High Mileage: The provider had at least 25 placements and the average child moved more than 50 miles from their previous placement. Miles are calculated from the center of a provider’s zip code region.
  • High Hospitalization: The provider had at least 6 placements and more than 25% of placements ended due to hospitalization of the child.
  • First Run Warning: The provider had at least 6 placements and more than 10% of children placed there ran for their first time while with the provider.
  • Baker Act Warning: The provider had at least 6 placements and more than 5% of placements ended because the child was Baker Acted. Baker Acts were calculated by finding children whose next placements were for “Routine/Emergency Mental Health Services”. Note that for small placements, even one Baker Act will raise this warning.
  • Arrest Warning: The provider had at least 6 placements and more than 5% of placements ended because the child was arrested. Arrests were calculated by finding children whose next placements were for “Correctional Placement” or whose placement end reason was “Incarceration/Detention”. Note that for small placements, even one arrest will raise this warning.
  • Night to Night Warning: The provider had at least 25 placements and more than 25% of placements were for 2 or fewer days.

I joked that this would be like Yelp for Foster Care, so I went ahead and added three more tabs to make that a reality:

  • School Map: This tab allows you to click on a provider and see the greatschools.org map for the school in its zip code.
  • Walk Score: This tab allows you to click on a provider and see the walkscore.com ratings for the zip code.
  • Yelp: This tab allows you to click on a provider and see the yelp.com most popular places in the zip code.
walkscore.com ratings for Florida Baptist Children’s Home in Pinecrest, FL

What can we learn from this?

The Herald Tribune did a story on the public records bill a few days ago. In it, the sponsor is quoted as saying:

“The foster parents are not the people who have been suspected of doing anything wrong,” Roach said. “It’s the parents themselves. … Those are the people that need scrutiny, not the foster care parents.”

Hold on now, nobody said bio parents shouldn’t be scrutinized — and they are heavily scrutinized, in the form of evaluations, classes, supervised visits, and home inspections. The question is whether a higher-than-zero level of public scrutiny of foster parents is warranted.

Yes, it is.

If we didn’t know who they are, we wouldn’t know that foster parent “Lor. Hic” has taken in 525 kids for 626 placements and asked for their removal 360 times (“High Disruption”, “Night to Night Warning”). If she’s agreeing to be a night-by-night placement, then she’s running a a shelter with a foster care license. We need to talk about that practice.

We wouldn’t know that foster parent “Tif. Gip.” has an average placement length of 29 days, but a median placement length of only 2 days (“High Turnover”). The average child placed with Tif. Gip. would experience over 7.5 roommates during their time there. That’s essentially a group home with a foster home license. We need to talk about that, too.

We wouldn’t know that foster parent “Sha. Rob.” experienced the Death of a Child in 2002, or know whether the teams involved in placing kids there for the next three years were aware of that fact.

We also wouldn’t know that foster parent “Kat. Mel.” had over 10% of her 138 kids run for the first time while in her care (“First Run Warning”). Same for “Pat. Fau.”, “Ann. Gre.”, “Gen. Zie.” and many others. What’s going on in these homes?

If the confidentiality gets expanded to institutional providers, then we wouldn’t know that the Hibiscus Vero Group Home has six flags: Arrest Warning, High Turnover, High Concurrency, High Mileage, First Run Warning, and the Death of a Child in 2012. It may be a perfectly lovely place, but I would want to ask questions about all of those issues before I sent a child there.

I’ve requested the provider payment database from DCF as well, and it’s pending. I plan to add an overlay on how much providers get paid. An earlier version of the payment data that I have showed that there was a foster parent in Miami (Jef. Hor.) that received $15,000 per month to care for one child. That is not a typo. If foster parent info is exempted from public records, we wouldn’t know that. The public has the right to scrutinize how the government spends its money. Fifteen-thousand a month is either excessive or what everyone else should get.

I’m also working on a version that overlays the Florida Sex Offender database. The foster home for “Tra. Dav.” that I used in the first example above is in a zip code with nearly 250 registered offenders. Most zip codes have a fraction of that. Maybe we want to think about that when we place kids there, especially certain kids.

Beyond just risk factors, there’s also the problem of the foster parents who have literally hurt kids. If their names are exempt from public records, we don’t know who they are unless they kill a child. (And kids are placed with providers even after others die, as seen above.) I appreciate what the sponsor is saying, but the statewide Guardian ad Litem Program was created and funded with taxpayer money and then significantly strengthened in response to a foster parent murdering a child. The potential for misconduct with our most vulnerable children warrants constant vigilance regardless of who the caregiver is. Trust should not be blind.

Okay Robert Latham, you’re a hypocrite for not publishing the foster parents’ names

Here is where some astute commenter sends me a pointed note that I have chosen to use initials instead of names. I must, therefore, agree that publishing the names would be dangerous.

Incorrect.

I believe that publishing the full names would kick the anthill and close down access to a valuable source of public information. I’m using the initials so that readers can focus on the importance of the information and not the hypothetical problems that can come from releasing it (even though it’s been public literally forever). For the public version, I think the three-letter initials are sufficient to find a specific foster parent you’re looking for if you already know the name. I am happy to share the unredacted version with anyone working directly in the system who could use the information.

Public information helps us make the system better, but we can’t do that if we’re not allowed to know things.

Categories
Charts & Graphs

This is not okay – Visualizing foster care placement instability

Christopher O’Donnell and Nathaniel Lash at the Tampa Bay Times recently published an outstanding investigative piece on the harmful number of placement changes some kids experience while in foster care. They write:

Foster care is intended to be a temporary safety net for children at risk of neglect and abuse at home. Those children, many already traumatized, need love and stability to recover and thrive, child psychologists say.

But thousands of Florida’s foster children were put at risk of further psychological damage by an overburdened system that repeatedly bounced them from home to home and family to family, a Tampa Bay Times investigation found.

Times reporters analyzed more than one million child welfare records recording the movements or placements of about 280,000 foster children under Florida’s care between 2000 and 2017. They show that thousands of foster children led transient lives, many staying only a few nights in one place before being moved on to the next foster family or group home.

(Nowhere to call home: thousands of foster children move so much they risk psychological harm)

For those of us working in the system, placement instability isn’t news (many professionals are numb to it). But it is news for the rest of the world, whose picture of foster care is based on the heartstrings marketing of charitable agencies or the five o’clock stories of deaths and abuses seen in the news. The daily pains and indignities of foster care are rarely discussed by a public who doesn’t have the information or language to talk about them. I was so happy for the Times article because it gave people a new idea: many foster kids move around a lot and that’s a bad thing.

This blog has a different audience, though. The readers here know about the system, often from deep in the weeds, handling cases or overseeing agencies and programs. We have seen placements disrupt both in 30-person staffings and via unexpected text messages that our client’s been kicked out of a home we thought would last — if not forever, at least for a week. We need no emotional priming on this topic. Short of telling a child he can’t go home, the hardest thing we sometimes have to say to them is they “can’t stay there anymore.”

It’s awful. Hold on to that feeling for these next parts. I want to show you placement instability from a thousand miles up, where the people look like ants. I want to multiply that gut-wrench feeling by 17,000 to break through the numbness and help you remember that this is not okay.

The database that the Times used in its reporting is a public record in Florida. I don’t know that any newspaper had ever written a story using it before, and I commend them for doing so. I also have it. I’ve been reluctant to share it largely because it is 77.8 million data points and completely overwhelming. The article and the discussion around it, though, made me believe that it’s time.

Instead of presenting the data with statistics and aggregates, I’m giving it to you how I first began to really understand it: as maps. Every dot on the map is at least one placement for a child. The colors show what type of placement: blue is foster home, purple is relative, orange is group homes, and so forth. The size of the dot shows the length of time the child spent there, and the lines show the moves from placement to placement. Sometimes there are breaks in the lines when run episodes, visitations, or administrative entries intervene. For the most part, though, it’s one continuous path from a child’s first removal placement to their last.

Here is an example. Below is the child with the second most number of placement entries in the database: 286 lines out of a million. He was removed twice: once in 2009 and once in 2011. He spent 1,211 days in institutions, 678 with relatives, 543 in group homes, and 201 on run. Only 22 days were spent in foster care. This child averaged a new placement every 9.3 days, and was moved over 3,700 miles from placement to placement, back and forth along the I-4 corridor. He had approximately 817 DCF roommates over the years and his last entry in the database was a juvenile facility in Orange County. He’s probably long gone now.

Every subsequent placement dot on the map means another “you can’t stay there anymore.” It means leaving your things behind or taking what you can carry. It means a new house with new people and rules, including other foster kids who may have already staked out their territory. You have to learn a new way to turn on a shower and hope there’s a toothbrush for you if you didn’t bring one. You get a new time to eat dinner, go to bed, and wake up — and if you don’t adjust fast enough then you might get kicked out just for that and start all over again. Imagine if you woke up with a different family every 9.3 days for years. That is not okay.


“I remember every one of those places.”

former foster youth

When I was working on this project last year, I showed a former foster youth his map. It was complicated, with lots of dots and lines crisscrossing Florida. He stared at it quietly for a while, looked up and said, “I remember every one of those places.” He asked me to print it out, and now he keeps it in a folder and takes it out when he wants people to understand what foster care was like for him.

I’m publishing the maps for 17,305 anonymized kids using Tableau. Instead of showing all 280,000 children’s maps, I’ve instead created groups of children by notable categories. For best results, I suggest opening it on a computer or tablet and hitting the full-screen button in the bottom right corner. If you’re interested in the details on each category or the database itself, there are tabs at the top of the Tableau with more information.

The Tableau is located here.

Below is a list of the categories you can view using the drop-down menu on the Tableau. I’ll do write-ups on them later, but I hope you will take the time to explore through the maps and imagine what life was like for the kids in these groups. It’s important to note that most kids in foster care have 3 or fewer placements and reach permanency in reasonable times. Those aren’t the kids we’re looking at here.

10+ Baker ActsHotel KidsShelter Dwellers
10+ Correctional
Placements
Incarcerated
Over a Year
Substance Abuse
Programs
10+ Night-to-Night
Placements
Institution DwellersTop Movers
Adult JailLongest time in careTop Movers –
No Admin
APD KidsMarried OutTop Movers –
Post
Privatization
DeathsMom & Baby
Placements
Unlikely
Adoptions
Failed AdoptionsMost Non-relative
Placements
Went to Camp
Failed Reunifications
(<30 days)
Most Roommates
Group Home DwellersOut-of-State Dwellers

Before I end, there is one more map below that captures what it can mean to be in foster care. Child 310000648701 came into care on February 11, 2005. We don’t know his exact age (or his gender actually), but his placements are marked as “Traditional 0-5” foster homes. (In 2010 he makes the transition to “6-12” homes, so he has to be on the young side of 0-5 in 2005.) By the end of February, five foster parents had kicked him out. He had two placements in March, three in April, two in May, and only one in June — that one was a non-relative placement and lasted 41 days before they kicked him out, too. Then another placement for two days; then one for one day. Then he was placed with a relative who kept him for 918 days — that’s two and a half years — before the placement ended “in accordance with case plan” (which I think means pursuant to a court order) and he went back to foster care.

He bounced around some more through regular and therapeutic foster homes, landed briefly in a group home in 2010 for eight days of “respite” care, and was finally placed (in entry 42) in a non-relative placement that adopted him after 175 days.

This child had 36 placement providers and only one was a group home. Families kicked him out, again and again, and for much of that time he was under the age of five. He was with relatives for two and a half years without permanency, and then removed presumably by a judge. After six or so years, it ended in adoption, which is good. We can celebrate the adoption while simultaneously asking hard questions about his experience with 34 other families who failed to make that connection or possibly even try.

These maps tell stories that placement stability statistics cannot. Over the next few weeks I’ll share examples and more thoughts on the categories above. I hope they will have the same impact on others as they did on me.

Categories
Charts & Graphs

Only 67 kids have been removed on Christmas Day in Florida (since 2007)

A video of a child being forcibly removed from his mother has been in the news lately. It’s brutal to watch. A group of police officers and security guards yank at the one-year-old while another swings a taser wildly around the room at anyone who gets too close. The woman is on the floor. Her sin is apparently trespassing, i.e,. sitting on the floor instead of standing when there were no seats available in the four-hour line. The charges are later dropped because she was trespassing at a government office (to extend daycare for her child) where people are actually allowed to be, and people sit on the floor in airports all the time and nobody rips their kids from them. The harm’s already done to the child, though. Nobody in the crowd intervenes — they don’t want to get arrested, shot, or lose their place in line — but they document it for the world to see.

(For added absurdity and likely thanks to the word “baby” in the title, the video I watched was preambled with an ad for Zales’s Enchanted Disney collaboration wherein a rich-looking white lady finds a diamond ring on a table, puts it on, and imagines she’s become a Disney Princess®. She has no idea whose ring it even is, but it’s hers now (hey she deserves it). Nobody arrests her for theft and wrestles her baby out of her arms. She does not spend a few nights in jail for having the audacity of self-worth. She, in fact, lives happily ever after.)

Children are removed from their parents every day, and it frequently looks just like that video. It is traumatic for everyone (especially the child) and is supposed to be only for very exigent reasons. In Florida, we know that anywhere from 1,000 to 1,500 kids enter the foster care system each month. The video got me thinking about when those removals happen.

I had a lot of assumptions. I’ve heard that removals go up around the holidays, and that they go down in the summers when kids are home. I felt sure that fewer removals would happen on the weekends, but also that there should be no reason for that because kids would be in more danger when not in school. Removals are supposed to happen when they are unavoidable, not when they are convenient to the investigator.

And I thought: how many kids are actually removed on Christmas? That would be horrible. 

As part of a project we are working on, our office came into possession of the entire Florida DCF placement database (anonymized and unforgivably massive). This database includes the removal dates and details of 280,839 kids going back to some who entered care in the 1980s. Looking only at the removals from January 1, 2007 to December 31, 2017, we have data on 156,357 kids. Some of those kids came into care multiple times, so the time period covers 181,799 removals. (Caveat: as with all real-world records, the data is only as good as it is. Given the large numbers here, it is reasonable to assume that errors are evenly spread out and not biased in any given direction.)

How many of those removals were on a holiday?

Since we have the dates for all the removals, it isn’t hard to count them. On a normal, non-holiday day, the average number of removals is about 46. For Christmas, the average is six. For Thanksgiving, it’s eight. Only 67 kids were removed on Christmas Day in Florida from 2007-2017.

There are a few takeaways there. First, holidays seem to suppress removal numbers, at least on the day of the holiday itself. The only holiday that appears above average is Columbus Day; but, with year-to-year variations, it — along with President’s Day and New Year’s Eve — is not statistically different than a normal non-holiday. There is no holiday where more kids are removed than average (though there are periods of the year when removals are up, discussed below).

So what about the theory that more kids are removed around the holidays? If you thought (like I did) that there would be a giant spike in removals before or after, say, Christmas — well, there isn’t. In fact, removals bump up slightly and then start dropping off around the week before Christmas (a.k.a. now). The slight bump isn’t enough to call a correction. A glance at DCF’s dashboard on investigations shows that Decembers are usually high points for closing investigations during the year, so these numbers are even more pronounced. Removals don’t pick up again until January when school is back in session.

Here is the year-round chart. This confirms that removals go down in the Summer and rise again in the new school year. If you thought sentimentality was what kept DCF from removing kids on Christmas, think again. You see similar holiday drops on the 4th of July and Veterans Day. The dips would be more pronounced for MLK Day, Labor Day and Memorial Day, except those holidays don’t happen on the same calendar day each year. Kids don’t get removed on holidays because investigators are on vacation.

click to expand

So that’s the question: if only 15 kids had to be removed on the 4th of July, why did 48 have to be removed on the 7th of July? 

What about the weekends?

On average only 14 kids per day were removed on Saturdays and Sundays. The highest day of the week for removals was Thursday — probably because court is held one day after a removal and nobody wants to go to court on a Saturday, for sure. At 14 removals per day, the weekend was on par with the 4th of July.

And, while we’re at it, what about time of day? Kids get removed during business hours. The later in the day, the higher the number of removals.  Below you can see three distinct peaks in the following hours: 9:00am, 1:00pm, and 5:00pm. Only 416 kids in this dataset were removed in the 6:00am hour. Maybe children are safer before dawn? (Those 5,580 kids removed at midnight include entries without a valid date — i.e., “00:00:00”. Don’t read into that spike.) I’m not including a graph because it’s messy, but if you look at the whole week the highest rates of removals happened during the 5:00pm hour on Thursdays. No surprise.

So removals happen all the time, except holidays, weekends, and usually not outside of business hours. And they especially happen when investigators first get to work, after lunch, and right before they go home for the day. Something feels very wrong about that. It’s as if “risk” is also a product of convenience, which is not how child protection is supposed to work.

If the averages hold, around six (and up to twelve) kids will be removed on Christmas Day this year. Let those removals be necessary and kind.

Categories
Charts & Graphs

How long do Florida appeals take?

The First DCA published statistics on its caseloads and decisions. But notably (as appellate judges like to say), the length of time they take to resolve cases was not reported. It motivated me to update the How Long do Appeals Take tableau.

Statewide – 10% sample of all cases Feb. to Nov. 2018

The answer? Probably 120 to 170 days for a Dependency case, 260 to 576 days for a Criminal case, and 345 to 603 days for a Civil case.

You can explore each district and case type at the tableau here.