Child Welfare Roundup

I had doubts I would get this written in time, but I did it! If you have ideas for future posts, just let me know.

Here are three things in Florida child welfare news to know this week.

Florida is creating a taskforce on missing children

Most child welfare legislation goes nowhere in a session, but this one is moving forward. SB 204 creates a taskforce, housed in the Department of Law Enforcement and supported by the Florida Institute of Child Welfare, to look into why kids run and how to get them back. A recent DHHS OIG audit found many states did not properly report children who ran away from foster care. Some reports say that Florida has one of the highest runaway rates in the country, but is pretty good at recovering the kids after they’re gone.

Over the last 15 years we’ve seen pretty stable numbers of kids reported on run: about 150-200 at any given time. It used to be much worse. Girls are always reported on run more than boys. You’ll see in the chart that a lot of girls were reported at the beginning of Covid lockdowns. Was that because more ran, more were reported on run, or the various parts of DCF were less eager to get them back? Remember foster parents were generally not accepting new kids at that time.

Kimberly Crosland (et al.) has looked at why kids run. She breaks the behavior into two functional categories: access (running to) and avoidance (running from).

Kids run to things they believe the foster care system is keeping them from: friends, social supports, school events, family, jobs. “Running to” is a self-advocacy strategy in the face of otherwise insurmountable bureaucratic rules and regulations.

Kids run from things in foster care they believe are harmful: negative interactions with peers in care, staff abuse, excessive restrictions on freedom and normalcy, hostile placements. “Running from” is a safety strategy when kids do not believe the protective mechanisms will effectively respond to their needs.

Do they sometimes run to or run from things they shouldn’t? Sure, everyone does. But I encourage future members of the taskforce to write the words “running is the problem and we need a secure facility to make sure they can’t do it” on a piece of paper and immediately throw it away. Why? Because running is not inherently maladaptive behavior. We want kids to avoid things that will hurt them — even when that is a foster home or DCF worker. And we want to maintain a good relationship with them so they will tell us and let us try to remove the harm. Criminalizing running away will make kids less safe and less honest. Running is usually a symptom of other problems that should be the focus of the cure.

DCF is taking over investigations from the sheriffs

For the last 25 years or so, Florida law has required several counties to conduct child maltreatment investigations through contracts with their local sheriff’s offices. Everyone else uses DCF investigators. Maybe this made sense at some point, on the theory that the police had better skills at investigating or community engagement. That rationale ended when the Department moved to the safety methodology and investigators were tasked with assessing risk and connecting people to community resources. That’s not really what the police do.

DCF is now in the process of transferring the investigations from the sheriffs back to the state. It will take legislative changes, staffing, and culture shifts, so don’t expect anything overnight. The sheriffs generally seem ok with the plan, most making public statements that they’re happy to give the responsibility back.

Over the years I’ve been asked often whether the sheriff counties had different investigatory patterns than the DCF counties. The short answer is yes, but it’s hard to say that was a function of using the sheriffs. For starters, there were only seven sheriff counties and they were split between giant counties (Hillsborough, for example) and tiny ones (looking at you, Walton County). In total, the sheriff counties handled 25% of investigations from March 2022 to February 2023. They accounted for 32% of the verifications and 29% of removals. Is it higher? Yes. Is it a significant difference? You tell me.

The Palm Beach Baker Act law suit is moving forward

This is actually from last month, but I just saw it this week. Child welfare professionals beware: Turns out it’s against the law to needlessly Baker Act kids. A group of parents, Disability Rights Florida, SPLC, and the NAACP filed suit against the schools and police in Palm Beach County over the unnecessary Baker Acting of children with disabilities. The complaint is brought under Section 1983, the ADA, the Rehabilitation Act, and the Florida Educational Equity Act. The defendants moved to dismiss, and, as usual in these cases, some of the counts were dismissed and some survived.

The magistrate’s recommendation lays out a few scenarios from the complaint that, if proven at trial, would be violations of children’s rights. Many of the scenarios involve situations that should have been dealt with by the schools instead of having the child Baker Acted. In one case, a parent tried to go pick her child up and was refused access. The kid was sent to the hospital instead. Magistrate Reinhart summarizes it like this:

Again, viewing the totality of the circumstances as they are alleged in the [amended complaint], I have before me four children under ten years old, each of whom was very upset and became physically aggressive, verbally aggressive, or both. However, the children did not have weapons or dangerous objects, did not have imminent access to weapons or any item that could be said to cause “serious bodily injury”, they did not have a meaningful opportunity or access to carry out their threats, and did not make many overt acts to harm themselves. Furthermore, in some of these cases, the mobile response team even recommended against the involuntary commitment, further highlighting the lack of perceived danger of serious bodily harm.

I cannot count the number of clients I’ve seen Baker Acted under similar situations. The foster care system is rife with this problem, especially when program directors also have behavioral health licenses that authorize them to initiate a Baker Act. There should really be a law that a person cannot initiate a Baker Act when they have a dual role with a child.

It’s hard to fight this problem. The Baker Act happens so quickly, without any consequence for the professionals involved, and then the child is released. Suing never feels like a solution. The procedural hurdles involved drag things out for years (this suit was filed in 2021). The kids would have to go through evaluations and possibly testimony if it went to trial. And it’s nearly impossible to prosecute a full civil action in the middle of handling all the other legal needs of a disabled child client. You’ve got to fight school expulsions, benefits denials, placement changes, and everything else. It’s three full time legal jobs.

Professionals who misuse the Baker Act rely on a lack of consequences when making their risk decisions. We really need a swifter path to justice.

Until next week

That’s your three things for this week. If you have suggestions for future stories, let me know. Happy Thursday!


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