child welfare, law, and lots of graphs

child welfare, law, and lots of graphs

Case Law Updates

No qualified immunity for baseless investigations & safety plans in the Sixth Circuit

When you’re being investigated for a crime, you have rights. You have the right to remain silent, and the right against unreasonable search and seizure of your property. If you are arrested, you have the right to an attorney, a trial where you can confront the witnesses against you, and afterwards the right to an appeal. We value these rights because we know from centuries of experience they are necessary to limit the abuse of state power, even if they are often insufficient when needed most.

If you’re investigated for child abuse, however, your rights are far less clear. You typically do not have the right to remain silent; you may never find out the identity of the person who called in the initial abuse report against you; and your children, home, and person can be searched based on that anonymous report with no clear way of challenging the search in the moment, and no way to limit the use of anything found later if the original search was unreasonable. You are not arrested at the end of a child abuse investigation, but your children can be. We call it removal, but it’s state custody just the same. And your failure to cooperate can lead to your children’s removal all by itself. Florida Statutes include in the definition of “harm” to a child when a parent:

Makes the child unavailable for the purpose of impeding or avoiding a protective investigation unless the court determines that the parent, legal custodian, or caregiver was fleeing from a situation involving domestic violence.

§ 39.01, Fla. Stat. Ann.

Courts and policymakers have become more aware of these dynamics and their constitutional implications. An upcoming article by Josh Gupta-Kagan at University of South Carolina School of Law adds a new dimension to this story: the use of voluntary safety planning in lieu of removal. Writes Gupta-Kagan:

While informal custody changes [through safety plans] can sometimes serve children’s and families’ interests by preventing state legal custody, this hidden foster care system raises multiple concerns, presciently raised in Supreme Court dicta in 1979. State agencies infringe on parents’ and children’s fundamental right to family integrity with few meaningful due process checks. Agencies avoid legal requirements to make reasonable efforts to reunify parents and children, licensing requirements intended to ensure that kinship placements are safe, and requirements to pay foster care maintenance payments to kinship caregivers.

America’s Hidden Foster Care System, upcoming in 72 Stanford Law Review 841 (2020).

To my knowledge, Florida DCF doesn’t publish stats on how many families are under safety plans. We can get a rough estimate by comparing the investigation numbers to the removal numbers. From February 2019 to February 2020, Florida DCF received 359,329 intakes. Of those, 247,406 were accepted for investigation (69%). Of those, 21,420 investigations (9%) resulted in verification for at least one child in the investigation. There were about 36,589 kids in those verified investigations, but only 15,422 children (42%) were actually removed.

So what happened to the 21,000 kids who were verified maltreated but not removed that year? I would guess, for many of them, safety plans. Done cooperatively with the parents, they can help support a family through difficult times. Done coercively, they can separate a family indefinitely without any meaningful recourse. That brings us to the case.

Holly Schulkers ate some chips

This case begins in February 2017, when Holly Schulkers of Kentucky ate some chips and went to the hospital for scheduled induced labor. It ends with her being coerced into a safety plan that required supervised contact with her children for months, she alleges, with no factual or legal basis whatsoever. The story in between is the worst form of standard child welfare investigation procedure.

Here’s a little of that in-between. Holly tested “presumptively positive” for opioids, but said she had taken some of her daughter’s prescription cough medication and had eaten poppy seed chips — specifically, according to a news story on the case, Everything Bagel chips. The hospital never did a confirmatory test, but let her breastfeed and noted no problems in her care of the baby. They did, however, order an umbilical cord test just in case and called in the social worker. The social worker notified child welfare, and the baby stayed in the hospital an extra 72 hours to watch for signs of withdrawal. Apparently none came.

Both a second urine test and the umbilical cord test would eventually come back negative. The child welfare people would know that. But still, they insisted on a safety plan: Holly Schulkers was to have no unsupervised contact with any child, and if she violated that restriction then all of her children would be removed and the case would be brought to court. Note the order there — first removed, then reviewed.

The Schulkers hired an attorney who advised Holly to take a hair follicle test. It was also negative. The attorney advised child welfare that the Schulkers could not be held to a safety plan with no factual basis. Child welfare, meanwhile, went to the older Schulkers children’s school and interviewed them alone in a room, resulting in them coming home scared that their mother would be arrested and they would be taken to foster care.

There are lots of other details in the opinion, such as a supervisor calling Holly to accuse her of heroin usage, which she denied; a nurse stating that Holly showed her the bag of chips; and a supervisor telling the investigator to release the Schulkers from the safety plan, but the investigator never doing so. The result was a two-month safety planned separation from her children. And a lawsuit.

Holly Schulkers sued the social workers

It is more accurate to say that the entire Schulkers family, kids included, sued the social workers. If the facts above seem very heavily against the child welfare professionals, that’s for a reason. Prior to taking the case to trial, the defendants moved for dismissal and summary judgment. In a dismissal, the court assumes that all the pleaded facts are true. In a summary judgment, the court takes all conflicting facts in whatever light is most favorable to the other party (the Schulkers in this case). If both motions are denied, then the case goes to trial. More often, though, the case goes to settlement. To sum up the assumed-true facts:

(1) The hospital staff believed the pre-delivery test of Holly’s urine was a false positive and were permitting Holly to continue to breastfeed the baby;

(2) Holly’s second confirmatory urine test results were negative; and

(3) the results of the umbilical cord testing were also negative.

Therefore, the court notes, “Plaintiffs allege that Defendants did not have any plausible suspicion that the Schulkers’ children were subjected to abuse or neglect at the time they conducted the interviews.” This isn’t the case of an investigation based on an anonymous source or flimsy evidence. This is a case about an investigation based on no evidence at all after the doctors determined the drug tests were negative. The question is whether state actors who engage in baseless investigations can be forced to go to trial and defend their actions, or whether they are protected by the constitution from being sued in the first place.

The defendants’ arguments for summary judgment were not particularly interesting. The decision notes a few times that the defendants kept inviting the court to view the facts in the light most favorable to them, which is not how summary judgment works. There was clearly a dispute about the evidence, and disputes about evidence go to trial.

The motion to dismiss, though, would mean no trial at all. State agents are cloaked in sovereign immunity, which significantly limits their ability to be sued for mundane, everyday governmental mishaps. To permit a lawsuit, the courts must consider whether the state agent violated the person’s constitutional rights and whether the right that was violated was “clearly established” in the law. The state officials have to be on notice that what they’re doing is a constitutional violation. That usually means some prior case has already ruled on similar facts or legal principles. That also means you hope that your case isn’t the first.

But this one was. Surprise.

The Sixth Circuit ruled

The court started by acknowledging that the prior case law in the Sixth Circuit wasn’t clear on the question of what basis is required for children to be detained and questioned by child welfare professionals. The Supreme Court, however, has given the circuit courts discretion to address the constitutional question in the first instance when necessary to “promote the development of constitutional precedent,” and “promote clarity in the legal standards for official conduct, to the benefit of both the officers and the general public.” That’s what the court did.

Interviewing kids in school

First, the court found that the children were clearly “seized” as the term is understood under the Fourth Amendment. They were in a closed room, alone with a government official, and not free to leave. The social workers did not try to argue this point. That seems wise, given their age, but other courts around the country have not been as sure about whether a child is seized if questioned while at school, where they are already, in a way, seized from their parents’ custody by the state. (It seems like sitting in a classroom for social studies and being held in the principal’s office for a custodial interrogation are not the same thing, but I’m not a federal judge.)

The court then reviewed a few competing legal standards for whether a seizure for questioning is reasonable — the same type of analysis that goes into probable cause and stop-and-frisk cases — and found that none of the standards would render the facts here ok. In legal speak, once the state knew that the drug tests all were negative, it “did not have any significant interest in interviewing the children.” At the very least, a social worker “must have reasonable suspicion of child abuse before conducting an in-school interview without a warrant or consent.”

In the Eleventh Circuit, which includes Florida, a somewhat similar situation to the Schulkers’ occured in Loftus v. Clark-Moore. In that 2012 case a father filed a private petition for dependency against the mother and then did not like the onslaught of investigation by DCF that his petition invited. He sued the state, alleging, among other things, that the questioning of his children at school without his consent was a violation of the Fourth Amendment. The Eleventh Circuit held that there was no clearly defined right against the questioning of children at school. In the Eleventh Circuit “a state official may seize a student at a school so long as the seizure is ‘justified at its inception’ and is ‘reasonably related in scope to the circumstances which justified interference in the first place.'” For the Loftus father, it was justified by his own dependency petition.

A jury will have to determine whether the social workers who questioned the Schulkers actually had reasonable suspicion at the time they interviewed the kids. The real facts are typically much messier than the assumed true ones. And this doesn’t mean that investigators can’t question children — it just means they need reasonable suspicion, parental consent, or a court order. That’s really not that much to ask the state to comply with prior to locking children in a room and grilling them about their parents. (See Shanta Trivedi’s The Harm of Child Removal.)

Involuntary safety plans

The Schulkers also brought suit for violation of their Fourteenth Amendment right to parent their children. They argued two violations here: one was substantive, one was procedural. Both were accepted by the court.

The substantive right was easy. Parents have a right to parent their children, and the state has a duty to protect those children. The balance of parents’ rights gives way when the state has reason to believe the children are maltreated. The whole child welfare system lives in this balance. But in this case, at least under the assumed facts, the state had no reason to believe the children were maltreated at all. Under the assumed facts, the hospital called the case in and later determined the drug test was a false positive. The state’s interest in the Schulkers family ended there.

The state tried to argue that a safety plan for supervised contact during the investigation did not cause a deprivation of rights because it was not a removal or termination. But the court didn’t bite. An order from a state agency to have only supervised contact with your own kids for an indefinite period of time is an infringement on your right to freely parent. If done inappropriately, that can be unconstitutional.

The Eleventh Circuit has only issued one opinion related to parental rights and child welfare safety plans. In Maddox v. Stephens, out of Georgia, a medically fragile child was released by the hospital to a paternal grandmother who was trained to provide care. The mother was going to be trained but was booted from the hospital after an altercation. The case worker quickly drafted a safety plan for the child to remain with the grandmother while trying to figure out which county to file a deprivation petition in. The Eleventh Circuit held that the facts didn’t shock the conscious: first, because the state had no control over the hospital releasing the child; and second, because permitting someone who wasn’t trained to have custody would have been worse. The safety plan was actually based on safety. The case provides no guidance on how the court would rule on a safety plan entered with no factual basis.

Back to Kentucky, the arguments on procedural due process were next. The Schulkers argued that they did not voluntarily enter the safety plan because they did so only based on the threat that the children would be removed if they didn’t. That doesn’t sound wrong — warning you about the legal consequences of your actions is not a threat — but in this case it wasn’t true. The evidence, at least at this stage, was that the state had no intention of removing the children. A supervisor even told an investigator to release the family. So, why did the social workers require the safety plan? The Schulkers say to draw down federal dollars for the case.

Even more interesting is the argument that the Schulkers had no meaningful way to challenge the plan except to violate it and risk having their children put into foster care. That’s not due process. The family repeatedly requested for the safety plan to be dissolved and were repeatedly told no even after a supervisor approved releasing them. The defendants say the Schulkers could have filed a “service appeal,” but there is nothing in the record to indicate anyone ever told them that at the time and some evidence that an investigator gave them info on a different procedure that would not apply until after the children were deemed abused. The court did not rule on the constitutionality of the actual process — it ordered a trial to determine whether the family had a meaningful way to challenge the safety plan or not. The assumed true facts were that they did not.

And that’s the next step of this saga. Though the named parties here are the social workers, the real defendant is Kentucky. The parties might go to trial, but more likely they will settle the case for some reasonable amount of money and, hopefully, a commitment from the Commonwealth to update its procedures to formalize the process for safety plans. That might include automatic expiration dates, a chance for formal administrative or judicial review, and a clear statement of rights. It might also include a commitment to support policy change that would clarify the procedure for the temporary detention of children for questioning. Other states should probably look at their laws, too. Given the expansion of pre-removal safety plans, this lawsuit could very easily travel.

Case Law Updates

Man has rights to children terminated for being on Miami time

This one is stupid and should never have happened. A father was 51 minutes late to his TPR trial because he had car problems. He showed up right after the judge entered a default against him. He moved to set the default aside, and it was denied. He appealed and apparently nobody conceded error because it took a written opinion from the Fourth DCA to fix it.

I note that the appellate case number is a 2019 case. It is April 2020 for one more day. They could have conducted a TPR trial against him every week since then. The only time you hold on to a default that tightly is when you know you’re going to lose. What a colossal waste of time.

M.B., v. Department of Children & Families, 4D19-3631, 2020 WL 2060285 (Fla. 4th DCA Apr. 29, 2020).

Case Law Updates

Third DCA bans preemptive surrenders

The Third District Court of Appeal in Florida issued a surprising opinion last week in D.M. v. Department of Children & Families. The case involved a child born in 2007. The Mother signed a surrender of her rights in 2010, but no TPR was ever entered. The child was eventually placed back with her. Ten years later, she refused to pick the child up after a Baker Act, and he was sheltered once again.

A year later, DCF filed a petition to terminate both parents’ rights. It alleged the grounds of abandonment, failure to comply with the case plan, irrespective of services, 12-of-22 months, and three-or-more removals. On the second day of trial, the child’s mother executed another surrender. The judge conducted a colloquy and accepted the surrender, over the child’s objection that it was not in the child’s best interest to terminate her rights. The trial continued and after hearing evidence the judge terminated both parents’ rights.

Let’s acknowledge for a second the value of having an attorney for the child here. Without the child being represented, the judge would not have heard the full weight of the child’s position that the mother’s rights not be terminated. The Department, guardian ad litem, and the mother were all in agreement. The person who had to live with the decision the longest was not, and their attorney translated that position into legal action. Sure, in the end the judge granted the TPR, but after a much more deliberative review than would have occurred if the child had not had counsel. The appeal is not about that, though. The court acknowledged in a footnote that the child had an interest in family integrity and his due process rights were protected through his attorney and the ample process involved.

The opinion is actually about the mother’s surrender. The Third District held that the final judgment on the mother’s termination must make “findings of fact specifying the act or acts causing the termination of parental rights.” The language is right from the Juvenile Rules on consents in TPR cases. Those findings must go beyond the parent’s consent and justify the underlying facts that support the termination of their parental rights. The court likened it to a criminal plea, which must be made on some factual basis of an actual crime. It remanded back to the trial court to make those findings, likely by stipulation from the parties if everyone agrees (but it appears the child does not).

The opinion is explicitly based on a Fifth District opinion from 2003. See C.B. v. B.C., 851 So.2d. 847 (2003). In that case, the mother filed a private TPR petition against the imprisoned father, who was alleged to have committed sexual abuse. To avoid the egregious details of the petition in the final judgment, the father executed a surrender. The trial judge ordered the mother to draft a final judgment based solely on the father’s surrender. The Fifth District held that the Juvenile Rules require, when a parent consents to a TPR, that the underlying facts be incorporated.

The holding doesn’t sound crazy, until you think through the implications. Many parents surrender early in a case, long before DCF files a petition to terminate their rights. In Northeast Florida, for example, a certain judge has been known to talk parents into surrendering at the shelter hearing. D.M. seems to hold that you cannot do that. If there is no other ground for a TPR, then there can be no independent factual basis to support a surrender. There won’t be an independent basis in most cases until a parent has at least attempted a case plan, adding months to a case that nobody benefits from.

I think the Third’s opinion gets the law wrong because the Fifth got it wrong. Under Chapter 39 and the Juvenile Rules, there are two distinct forms of legal consent at play here: (1) a parent’s surrender of the child to the Department and consent for subsequent adoption, and (2) a parent’s consent to a petition to terminate their parental rights. They are not the same thing.

A surrender to the Department is an independent ground for a TPR. If the surrender is executed prior to the filing of a TPR, then the only ground in the petition is likely, but not necessarily, the surrender itself. The parent’s surrender waives all future notice and therefore the TPR goes through on the basis of the surrender alone. In these scenarios, the consent is given to DCF for the adoption, but the parent is never even noticed for an arraignment at which to take a plea.

The second type of consent is the legal plea that occurs after the filing of a petition against a parent. This consent must be a response to a legally valid petition. In dependency law, the options are deny, consent, or admit. Just as you cannot plea to a crime with no factual basis, you cannot consent to a TPR petition that is not legally sufficient. If you want to get TPR’d that badly, you can surrender. They are not the same thing. The court’s ruling that surrender is equivalent to consent and must be accompanied by other grounds effectively nullifies the provision that surrenders are independent grounds for TPR.

And that’s where the Fifth District got it wrong back in 2003. The father in C.B. did not consent to the petition. In fact, he surrendered to create a new ground for TPR because he specifically disagreed with the allegations in the original petition. The criminal analogy is not that he would be consenting to something without a factual basis — instead, he was accused of one crime, came to court, punched the bailiff, and then asked for his first charge to be dismissed because he’s going to jail anyway.

In more legal terms, the father engaged in a form of unilateral stipulation. It’s a very common trial tactic: you stipulate to a witness’s testimony or an expert credentials because you believe the effect of their testimony will hurt far worse than the substance of their testimony. But this was unilateral stipulation to the extreme: a petitioner in a TPR case only needs to prove one ground, but a petitioner still has the right to prove their whole case.

In a criminal case you cannot plead to a misdemeanor to preclude the state from going forward with felony charges. In a civil case you cannot admit negligence to preclude a plaintiff from going forward with their intentional tort claims. The legal claims, if proven, have different legal effects. And the same is true in dependency: an involuntary termination can be automatic grounds for a future case involving a different child. A voluntary surrender cannot.

So, the trial court in C.B. erred by dismissing the mother’s other grounds once the father strategically created a new one. The appellate court in C.B. then erred by looking to the consent language for a remedy (“let’s just make the final judgment list all the bad stuff”), when the appropriate resolution would be a ruling on whether a court can halt a trial once one ground is proven (“let’s still give her a chance to prove the bad stuff”). Because the father in C.B. didn’t really consent, there could be no stipulated facts for the final judgment language. They were going to trial regardless.

Alternatively, the Fifth District could have considered whether a parent can surrender a child not to the Department and not for subsequent adoption. In C.B., the mother argued that she was standing “in the shoes” of DCF for the purposes of accepting the surrender, but her argument was backwards: the father couldn’t surrender because she’s not DCF whether she wanted to accept it or not. Maybe we don’t want parents to just be able to surrender their rights and walk away, child support being a right of the child and all. It is not surprising that C.B. has only been cited one other time in 17 years, and not even for the legal principles at play here.

So C.B. was wrong on the law, and D.M. was wrong for following it, but I’m not very upset about the result. I have never been a fan of preemptive surrenders by parents. The father in C.B. appears to have been gaming to prevent public record of a heinous act. (He had already managed to get a no contest plea in criminal court.) But preemptive surrenders most frequently happen on the worst day of a parent’s life. They are often a result of the Department inviting a parent to trade the surrender of one child in exchange for leniency on a case plan for another (or some future) child. These decisions are fraught with problems, and too frequently result in a child just getting orphaned into foster care with no real plan.

Admittedly, the Juvenile Rules do not make any of these distinctions very clear and in fact they seem to conflate pre-filing surrender and a plea of consent to a petition. The rules never align with the statutory language that the parent’s consent during surrender is to the child’s placement with DCF for adoption. That may be worth someone looking at more closely.

It’s worth noting that even on a surrender the court still has to find that the termination is in the child’s manifest best interests (a lengthy analysis of the child’s circumstances) and the least restrictive means to protect the child from harm (a legal analysis to determine whether the parents’ rights were properly protected). It sounds like the court did that here. The law allows preemptive surrenders whether I like them or not. Maybe that should change.

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 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!


Miami Courts: Closed

The 11th Judicial Circuit of Florida issued an order this afternoon shutting things down.




The Honorable Bertila Soto, Chief Judge of the Miami-Dade Courts, today issued Administrative Order 20-03, cancelling all non-emergency court proceedings, except mission-critical court matters, for the period from Tuesday, March 17th, through Friday, March 27th.

Also pursuant to Administrative Order 20-03, all time limits and deadlines set by judicial order and/or authorized by rule and statute applicable to: civil (circuit and county), family, domestic violence, probate, small claims, and appellate proceedings are suspended from close of business Friday, March 13, through close of business on Monday, March 30.

The time period may be extended based on guidance from health and government authorities and in coordination with the Florida Supreme Court. Future updates will be provided as needed.

All court employees who have the capability to work remotely from home will do so in coordination with their supervisors.

Pursuant to Administrative Orders 20-02 and 20-02 A1, issued Monday, March 16th, all court facilities remain closed to the public except for mission-critical court matters during the time period of March 17-27, 2020.

Mission-critical court matters include:

  • First appearances (bond hearings)
  • Arraignment hearings for in-custody defendants, but defendants do not need to appear in court. If there is a written plea, the case will be set for trial. If there is no written plea, the arraignment hearing will be reset.
  • Baker Act & Marchman Act (substance abuse) hearings
  • Juvenile shelter and detention hearings
  • Access to Clerk’s Office intake windows for filing of emergency petitions for temporary injunctions (domestic violence, and dating, stalking, repeat and sexual violence, and risk protection orders)
    Note: All hearings on final injunctions pursuant to F.S. 741, 784 and 790 will be canceled and re-scheduled to a future date. All temporary injunctions will be extended and will remain in full force and effect until the next hearing date.
  • Emergency hearings set by presiding Judge
  • Trials that were underway before the Florida Supreme Court issued Administrative Order 20-13 on March 13th will continue.

All non-emergency court proceedings, including but not limited to: special set hearings, trials, and all calendars, including but not limited to, motions, pretrial motions, foreclosures, uncontested divorces and case management conferences, will be cancelled and re-scheduled to a future date.


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.

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