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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.