I have read a lot in the news lately about the foster care crisis. By many accounts, the growth in out-of-home care (OOHC) has been driven in part by a growing epidemic of drug cases. In previous posts, I’ve shown that the data does not exactly bear that out and the growth is more likely a result of policy changes, especially policies on how cases with available relatives are handled. I don’t deny there’s been an uptick in drug cases, but the expansion is probably a result in fewer cases being referred to voluntary services while the children stay with a relative under a safety plan.
Another theme in these news reports is the lack of foster homes. So let’s take a look at those numbers. In March 2016, I requested the count of licensed beds in each zip code in Florida. The data went into the Licensed Placements by CBC & Zip Map. Last week I made the same request again, and can now compare the numbers between March and now.
The results: the number of licensed beds has grown 0.8% while the number of children in OOHC has grown 3.9%, or almost 5x as fast.
While 0.8% is probably a non-significant change, the numbers are higher and lower around the state. Losing 16 beds in Miami-Dade County is essentially no change, while gaining 60 beds in Duval County is an almost 8% expansion.
The chart below shows the changes in licensed bed numbers against the changes in OOHC placements. Non-relatives continue to make up the fastest growing placement type, which may be concerning if agencies are using this category to avoid licensing and support while also reducing board payments. I would be curious to know how many of these placements would convert to licensed placements if given an efficient way to do so. I would also be curious to know how many of these “non-relatives” would be more appropriately licensed as group homes.
On the other end, both facility placements (actual kids placed in a facility) and therapeutic beds are decreasing. The number of Child Caring Agency beds has remained almost even.
Family Foster Placements
Family Foster Beds
All Licensed Beds
Child Caring Agency Beds
Therapeutic Foster Beds
Another way to view these numbers is by how full-to-capacity each type is. The placement data and the licensing data isn’t broken up in exactly the same way, so I’ve combined family foster beds and therapeutic beds. The result is that only two-thirds of family foster beds are actually filled, and that number has crept up since March 2016. Simultaneously, a little over half of child caring agency beds (i.e., group homes) are filled by child welfare kids.
Family Foster + Therapeutic Capacity
Child Caring Agency Capacity
The 33% vacancy rate is probably due to lots of factors. Some families are licensed for more children than they want to take in at any given time. Other beds cannot be filled because a child in the home has a safety plan that prevents other children from being placed there. Still other homes are temporarily not accepting children at all. In group homes, not all kids in those homes are child welfare placements. What is important is that we’re pushing deeper into the foster home capacity and reducing the reliance on group home programs.
Below are the breakdowns for foster beds, therapeutic beds, and group home beds. You can explore the data in more detail on tableau.com. As always, if there’s something you want to see or know, just leave a message in the comments.
Florida’s statewide out-of-home care population rose 232 children in October, maintaining a consistent 5% growth over October of last year. In-home-care numbers decreased by 29 children and are expected to remain flat. Growth was largest in the Northwest and Suncoast regions, while the Southeast and Southern regions experienced contractions. Only the Southeast region is projected to continue to experience its contraction into next year. More details are below.
Dec 2017 (Projected)
% of OOHC (Oct 2016)
The Northwest region appears to be continuing its massive expansion, growing 17% over last year, the highest of any region. The expansion appears driven by an increase in removals concurrent with a flattened discharge rate. Relative placements have expanded the fastest, while permanent guardianships are nearing zero. Without some change in either removal rates or discharge rates, the Northwest is currently projected to grow another 27% in the next year.
The Suncoast region continues its OOHC expansion that began around January 2014 and its IHC expansion that began in June 2015. The massive expansion appears driven by increased removal rates concurrent with flattened discharge rates. Relative placements continue to be the largest placement while discharges through permanent guardianships continue to decrease. The Suncoast region continues to be the largest region with 28% of all children in out-of-home care.
The Northeast region continues its expansion this month, up 8% over last year. The expansion appears driven by an increase in removals concurrent with steady discharge rates beginning around June 2014. Relative and non-relative placements continued to show expansion.
The Central region continues its expansion this month, up 7% over last year. The expansion appears driven by heightened removal rates concurrent with steady discharge rates beginning around November 2014. Relative and non-relative placements show the most growth. Reunification and guardianships both have decreased as a proportion of OOHC, suggesting a bottleneck in resources.
The Southeast region’s contraction appears largely motivated by an increase in discharges, a larger reliance on permanent guardianships, and a slightly rising adoption rate. The Southeast region has also experienced a downsizing of its facility-based care population, which began a sharp drop-off in May 2016 and has decreased 19% to 501 since October 2015.
The Southern region’s contraction that began in May 2015 may finally be turning, though in-home-care placement may continue to fall. This region is projected to grow 8% in the next year. The Southern region continues to have the highest racial disparity of any region, with black youth over-represented by 4.3x the rate of white youth.
A word about placement types
Expansions in OOHC have been largely located in relative placements (pink line below), which have remained approximately 40-45% of OOHC since their initial expansion with Secretary Wilkins in June 2010. Family foster homes (green line) have risen gradually in the post-Wilkins era. Notably, non-relative placements (purple line) have continued to outnumber facility foster homes (blue line). The types of non-relatives (families, facilities, or informal group home settings) and the amount of social and financial support provided to these placements is currently unknown and probably deserves some attention as more children are placed in these settings.
Florida’s statewide out-of-home care population rose 309 to 23,538 in September, up 5.3% from the same time last year. IHC has remained stable for the past 12 months. Our model has now seen a long enough period of OOHC growth that it can begin separating out seasonal variations, like summer slumps and adoption months, from actual growth. The resulting picture suggests that the current expansion will continue indefinitely without some policy change.
Trends in removals and discharges support this projection. Both removal and discharge rates are seasonal and, except for the months of November (National Adoption Month) and June (beginning of summer reunification rush), removals are projected to continue to outpace discharges.
All placement types are expected to continue to expand, with the exception of facility foster homes.
The number of calls accepted for investigation by the abuse hotline are stable, verifications are down nearly 3% over the previous year, but removals are up over 3%. Hillsborough and Miami-Dade continue to have the highest absolute number of removals, while DeSoto county has the highest per 100,000 children in the county. Similarly, the Eckerds and Our Kids have the highest absolute number of removals, while CBCs in less populous regions continue to have much higher removals per 100,000 children.
Regional projections continue to show a lot of variation around the state. The Northwest Region has grown 13% over the last year and is projected to continue to grow another 30% in the next 14 months. At the other end, the Southeast Region has contracted 7% in the last year and is projected to continue this contraction through December 2017. The Suncoast Region, which comprises 28% of all children in OOHC, has grown 13% in the last year and is expected to continue expanding.
Projected Dec 2017
Percent of Statewide OOHC
A word about the importance of leadership and statewide policy. The following chart shows OOHC broken down by DCF secretaries over time. Changes in leadership correspond with changes in direction. The exceptions are the transition from Butterworth to Sheldon under Governor Crist, and the transition from Interim Secretary Jacobo to Secretary Carroll under Governor Scott. The Wilkins bubble from 2011-2013 is possibly attributable to an attempt to expand OOHC when Governor Scott took over office, but without sufficient legislative structures and CBC buy-in. Secretary Wilkins, an outsider to the child welfare community, eventually resigned under pressure and in the middle of a flurry of negative press about the deaths of children who had contact with the Department. The expansion continued under Secretary Carroll.
I received a question the other day about the availability of therapeutic placements around the state. My gut answer at the time was that there is wide variation based on geography and CBC. Through a public records request I had done a few months ago, I was able to put together maps showing the disparity. It’s extreme.
A few caveats. The maps show the number of licensed beds, not necessarily the number of kids in those placements. The colors show which CBCs have authority over those regions, but this does not mean that those CBCs use those placements or licensed them. I’m working on another set of maps that show how CBCs place kids out-of-area.
What do we see in these maps? There are a couple of counties around the state with no licensed placements at all. There are a handful of others that have fewer than 10. Comparing these numbers to the placement maps on the Dashboard, the CBCs in these areas tend to rely on relative caregivers to a larger degree.
What is most striking is the distribution of therapeutic foster and group care (STFC and STGC) placements. They cluster in bigger cities. Some areas, like the Suncoast Region, have a large number of STFC placements available. Whereas the inside of the state, and specifically the area covered by Devereux CBC, have very few. There are no STGCs in the Northwest Region and very few in the Northeast. The two regions overseen by ChildNet have the largest concentration of STGCs.
The economic viability of running an STFC or STGC program depends completely on the local CBC to refer clients. It would be interesting to know more about how each CBC screens kids and makes referrals. This may explain a lot of the discrepancy.
I should note that I’m not advocating for more STFCs and STGCs. At least not as they’re currently implemented. The programs put kids like my clients in families and placements where they find stability and support (this is good!) — and then kicks them out as soon as they’re doing well and no longer meet medical criteria (this is bad!). Many of my clients don’t want to leave, and it seems contrary to everything we’re told about attachment and bonding to have time-limited family placements. Every foster home should be small, focused on the child, and therapeutically trained.
If anyone has specific questions about the maps, I’m happy to answer them in the comments.
The August numbers are out and it appears the Carroll expansion is slowing down, but continuing. OOHC numbers were slightly higher than projected this month, which may be due to lower discharges during the summer holidays. Though the line is flattening, removals are expected to continue to outpace discharges for the foreseeable future and only two regions are contracting.
The charts below show the numbers for each region, sorted from most expanding to most contracting. For more details, check the Dashboard.
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.
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 wayup.
Looking 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Disproportionality issues galore.
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.
Viewed 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.
Interestingly 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.
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:
As an example, here is the Putnam County OOHC/IHC chart:
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org) if you find errors, have suggestions, or want to see specific questions answered based on the data.
There has been a lot of discussion in Miami lately about the appropriate response to kids who run away from foster care. The perception here is that foster kids are running away more often. I wondered if that was true, so I checked the Department of Children and Families’ Child Welfare Services Trend Report (January 2016). A few caveats about the numbers, which I present below. The CWST Report counts a child as “runaway/absconded/abducted” if they’ve left the placement without permission and their whereabouts are not known on the last day of the month. This seems to under-count by excluding kids who run away for short periods of time, unless those periods cross a month boundary. The report does not break down missing youth by age, sex, or other demographics (but DCF’s Missing Child List suggests that most missing foster children are teenagers). Nor does it tell us why a youth left, where they went, or how long they were missing.
The question being raised in Miami is whether children in the foster care system can be judicially ordered to not run away, and then held in secure detention for contempt if they don’t comply. Florida statutes and the Florida Supreme Court are clear that dependent youth cannot be placed in secure detention for contempt; moreover, running away, in and of itself, is not a criminal offense in Florida. Police are required to return children to their custodians in their role as so-called “community caretaker.” If the child is a habitual run-away, then the family can be referred for services. This program does not apply to children in foster care, who already receive services.
I checked DCF’s procedures on run-away youth. The Department’s operating procedures require the case manager to request court and law enforcement help to return the child if located. I was happy to see that the operating procedures also state that “When the child returns, the child must hear and see statements of concern regarding the child’s safety and well-being from the adults who have significant relations with the child.” I have seen adults respond with anger and frustration when youth run away, or adults who seek to punish the youth for running instead of exploring the cause and purpose.
I certainly understand the frustrations motivating people seeking to reduce the number of missing youth. The numbers discussed below substantiate the perception that kids are running away at high rates: Miami has a rate of missing kids that is four times the lowest Florida regions. We should be asking why that is. Running away is not inherently a form of mis-behavior. Running away can be a developmentally appropriate behavioral response to stressors and problems that need to be addressed in the home or the child’s life. It can also be a safer alternative to an abusive or neglectful home, especially if adults charged with protecting the youth are not responsive to complaints. Commanding or ordering a child to not run away without addressing those underlying problems is equivalent to ordering a child not to cry.
Based on my own experience, threatening foster youth with incarceration also has the counterproductive effect of undermining the child’s trust and belief in the fairness of the system, thus making the desire to run away even stronger. It also has the negative consequence of normalizing the idea of incarceration, i.e., “the judge is going to throw me in jail anyway, so I may as well do X.” Foster youth are already at significantly higher risk of juvenile justice involvement. Secure detention would only exacerbate that risk.
The numbers below suggest that the current missing child rate is a symptom of something going very wrong. We need more information about why these kids are running and how to address their needs. Now for the numbers.
Missing children over time
Since 2003, there has been a very large variation in the number of children listed as missing in the CWST Report. The peak occurred in June 2007 with 470 missing children statewide. I checked that against the number of kids in out-of-home care that month: 17.5 kids per 1000 kids in out-of-home care were missing.
This peak appears to have gone largely unnoticed and un-commented upon. A search of Google News for that time period turned up nothing. A chart in a DCF training bulletin from January 2007 listed the missing child rate at 1.67% with no mention that this was nearly double the rate from just four years prior.
In the next chart, you can see that not all DCF regions had equal numbers of missing kids. The Suncoast Region has the highest number of missing children in 2007, but all regions were slightly up that year.
When these numbers are viewed as a percentage of kids in out-of-home care, though, a different picture emerges. Remember from previous posts that the Southern Region (Miami & the Keys) has historically had relatively fewer kids in out-of-home care than other regions. In January 2016, for example, the Southern Region had 1,999 children in out-of-home care, compared to 6,234 children in the Suncoast Region (Tampa, St. Petersburg).
Viewing the rate of missing kids as a percentage of kids in out-of-home care, the Southern Region has four times the rate of missing children as the region with the lowest rate. The historical statewide high was 17.5 missing children per 1,000 in 2007. The Southern Region has hit 30 missing kids per 1,000 twice. Moreover the Southern Regions’ rate appears to have grown since 2014 and is currently hovering around 20 per 1,000. Other regions are currently averaging 5-7 per 1,000.
What is going on? With this data I can offer only theories. One theory could be that the expansion of out-of-home care numbers has led to an increase in the number of missing kids. The graphs below show the number of missing kids versus the out-of-home care population. You can see that the rise in missing kids is partially a product of the rise in out-of-home care population. As the population goes us, the number of missing kids does go up. But the differences in the slopes and differences among regions suggest that more is going on in the South than just additional kids coming into care.
Another theory could be that the missing child rate is an indicator of system instability. Miami has experienced a lot of changes over the last 4 years, including the closing of several case management agencies and a restructuring of its placement system. Even among agencies that have remained open, the case manager turnover rate has been high. That upheaval has not been easy on anyone, most especially the kids. It could be that the missing kids aren’t running away from “care” as much as running to find care somewhere they believe will be more stable. Without more information from the youth themselves, it is very difficult to say.
Foster kids don’t go missing at equal rates throughout the year. Statewide missing child numbers tend to seasonally increase 7.5% in June and then decrease 6.6% in September. I suspect these are summer runners who return to school, and thus to their placements, in the Fall. There’s a similar spike of 4.1% in December, with a dip of 2.8% in January when school is back in session. These are likely unsanctioned holiday visits.
Breaking up the numbers shows some regional differences. Every region experiences the back-to-school dip in recovered kids. Interestingly, however, the Northwest Region (Pensacola, Tallahassee) doesn’t have a pronounced summer spike. It does, however, have a very large increase — 20.5% — during the winter holidays. The Central Region, on the other hand, has a significantly smaller increase in missing kids over the winter holidays. This might suggest the need to look at how the Home for the Holidays program is being implemented in these regions to see if that is affecting the number of missing kids.
The numbers in context
If you know your region is experiencing a missing child crisis, what do you do? A 2011 study from the Urban Institute and Chapin Hall (which I will paraphrase liberally for the next three paragraphs) found that the reason kids run away from foster care falls into two basic categories: (1) wanting to be with family and friends and (2) disliking their placement. After a runaway episode, most youth return to care voluntarily. The reasons for returning included wanting to be back at their home, wanting to go to school, and avoiding getting themselves or others in trouble.
The majority of youth in the Chapin Hall study ran away to a friend’s home, including boyfriends and girlfriends; and about one-third spent their first night at a relative’s home. Only three youth reported spending any time of their most recent episode in an outside location such as a park or an abandoned building. As a result, these youth do not seek services while they are on the run from a placement.
Consequently, foster youth are often less sophisticated in terms of street knowledge. Youth who run away from foster care have more knowledge of services available than high school aged youth in general, but youth with foster care experience generally had similar or less knowledge than other runaway youth. In particular, youth in the study’s foster care sample had less knowledge of services that typically comes from street experience including free meals, drop-in centers, street outreach and free showers. The biggest barrier to foster youth seeking services while on the run is that they believe they will be turned in, either directly to the Department or to the police.
The Chapin Hall study’s review of literature also found the following:
Females are more likely to run away than males.
Runaway behavior is not linked to a particular race or ethnicity.
Runaways tend to have more school problems, higher rates of suicidal ideation, more reported behavioral problems; and more alcohol, substance abuse, and mental health disorders.
Foster youth are more likely to run away the first time if they entered care due to lack of supervision and less likely if they entered due to sexual abuse or physical abuse.
The more placements they have, the more likely youth are to run.
Youth in group homes or residential facilities more likely to run away than youth in foster homes; youth placed with relatives are least likely to run away.
Length of time in care does not necessarily predict runaway; in fact, the older the youth is when entering care, the more likely they are to run away.
There’s no reason to believe that securely detaining kids for running away is a productive intervention strategy, and it may have unforeseen consequences if children remain in unsafe placements or remain on run in an unsafe situation out of fear of incarceration. There are evidence-based intervention models that could be implemented as alternatives to secure detention: researchers at The University of South Florida published a 2008 study on approaches to intervening in runaway behavior. The study found that a functional behavioral approach was significantly more successful than “services as usual.” The Child Welfare Information Gateway has a collection of resources on running away.
Whatever is going on in the Southern Region does not appear universal or unavoidable. We need to figure out why these kids are leaving at such high rates — and we must welcome them back warmly and with concern, so that they never have to think twice about reaching out for help.
Over the weekend, I posted some charts showing the number of kids under DCF supervision since 2004. Today we’re going to look at a slightly different measure: the number of abuse investigations between September 2006 and September 2015. Here goes.
This shows the total number of investigations from September 2006 to September 2015. Buried in DCF’s spreadsheets is a caveat that these numbers do not include calls that were screened out as “no jurisdiction.” Therefore be careful — this is the number of investigations, not the number of calls. This measures DCF’s response to calls, not the calls themselves.
The statewide total is at the top and the regional totals are at the bottom. Immediately you can see the stratification that we saw in the last post, this time in three clear groups: (1) Suncoast and Central, (2) Northeast and Southeast, and (3) Northwest and Southern.
All of the regions are strongly correlated (P <0.01) — they all rise and fall together. This implies that anything that’s moving the numbers is either a change in DCF policy or some statewide phenomenon.
Let’s look at the numbers again controlling for the size of each region.
This chart shows how many investigations per child in the region were conducted each month. The three groups we saw above have fallen away and we now see that the farther north you go, the more investigations per child are conducted. The Northwest and Northeast regions vie for the highest rate, while the Southern and Southeast Regions are consistently lowest.
Without knowing the number of actual calls per region, we cannot say any more than that. It could be that people in Miami do not call the abuse hotline as much as people in Pensacola. It could be that southern callers are screened out at much higher rates than callers from the northern parts of the state. The most striking difference between these regions of the state, of course, is the mix of languages. I’ve never called the abuse hotline in Spanish or Haitian Creole, so I do not know what that experience is like.
The zig-zags from month to month imply that there are seasonal effects going on. Let’s remove those to get a better picture of the trend lines.
This chart shows the trend lines without all the noise from the regular ups and downs that occur month-to-month. You can see the clear dip in the 2009-2010 period. Again, this means that fewer investigations were conducted. Without knowing the number of calls total, we cannot say more.
Some statewide event happened at the end of 2010, right at the end of Secretary Sheldon’s tenure. Nowhere else in the data is there such a sharp change across all regions. I suspect there was a policy shift there, probably dealing with how calls were screened out, but I have not been able to find anything on DCF’s websites documenting it.
More recently, something is occurring in the Northwest (and to a lesser extent in the Northeast) beginning around November 2014. Either callers are getting better at bringing maltreatment to the attention of the Department or there is some policy encouraging investigations at higher rates in these areas. The same increase is not found in the south.
The regional rankings are amazingly consistent over time, with the exception of the two northern regions jockeying back and forth. I would expect to see more changes in the rankings. I am not a conspiracy theorist, but it looks as if there were almost quotas keeping the numbers even.
Remember the sharp increase in kids under DCF’s supervision starting in 2013? That’s nowhere to be seen in these numbers. DCF is not handling more investigations; they’re handling investigations differently.
I was curious about the effect that media reports have on DCF investigations, so I looked up the date of the Miami Herald’s Innocents Lost series. It published in March 2014 and spurred a series of town halls and other events over the following months. There is an inflection point in the data at March 2014, but notably it does not occur in the Southern Region where the Miami Herald is located. Complicating the picture is the fact that there were already very public discussions about DCF’s investigation policies in the preceding months and reforms were already working their way through the legislature. I know of one study finding that, instead of driving changes, news reports tend to follow the same forces that spur change in the system. I can’t say any differently with this data.
Interestingly, there is no correlation between the number of investigations and the number of kids under DCF supervision.
I checked the numbers and there is no statistically significant correlation here. Except for the slight bump in both lines around the end of 2010, the numbers of investigations and children under DCF supervision are independent.
I even ran cross-correlations over time to see if more investigations in one month resulted in higher numbers of kids in care in later months. Again, there was no correlation.
That’s it for now. If you read this far, you like graphs as much as I do. Next time I’ll look at the number of verified abuse reports and the types of maltreatment.