I’ve added a new tab to the Child Welfare System Dashboard that shows the out-of-home care population annotated with historical events: governors’ tenures, legislative history, and Florida Supreme Court opinions. Each picture tells a different part of the story about what drives child welfare policy and the rise and fall of the OOHC population.
The saying goes “personnel is policy.” The chart below shows historical trends in the statewide out-of-home care numbers as a factor of both who was secretary and who was governor. Be careful about the vertical axis — it starts at 14,000 to make room for the labels, so the proportions may be misleading. The current OOHC population is 19% lower than when Governor Crist took office and 30% higher than when Governor Scott took office.
The next chart shows major state legislative enactments. It’s a little hard to read because the major overhaul bills do lots of things all at once. That’s not exactly how you want to run an evidence-based system. (The chart below is just major legislation — the tableau.com version lets you view all legislation during the tenure of each secretary.)
The chart shows that Secretary Butterworth took over right after the passage of SB 1080, which greatly expanded both the permanency options and case planning procedures. OOHC plummeted during this time. Secretary Sheldon took over right after the passage of HB 7077, which restricted case plan duration to 9 months before triggering a TPR ground. The size of OOHC continued to decrease through this period. At the end of Secretary Sheldon’s tenure, the Legislature passed HB 5303, which changed the funding and risk pool models for CBCs.
With a new governor and a new secretary in 2011, the Legislature passed SB 2146 creating the Equity Allocation Model in statute, which based funding on proportions of children in the CBC’s area (30%), proportion of children in care (30%), proportion of hotline workload (30%), and proportion of reductions in the size of OOHC (10%). (This is a gross oversimplification.) By 2015, the formula had been tweaked multiple times to condition 80% of funding on the CBC’s size of OOHC, 15% on the hotline workload, and only 5% on the size of the child population. Between January and June 2015 when the bill that cemented OOHC as the primary driver of funding was being considered in the legislature, CBCs permitted their OOHC populations to grow by 2,000 children in what appears to be the largest and steepest consecutive increase in documented history. Aside from seasonal variations, OOHC rates have increased ever since.
This last chart shows Florida Supreme Court opinions. You can see that in the early 2000’s, when the OOHC population was still high, the main issue was the level of due process afforded parents in dependency and TPR proceedings. (Very little.) Most opinions were answered with a legislative amendment. In 2004, the Court issued an opinion requiring a showing of substantial risk of harm to a child in order to terminate their parents’ rights. That was the Court’s last substantive child welfare opinion until 2015, when the Court held that parents have a constitutional right to effective assistance of counsel in TPR proceedings. The next year, the Court ruled that the existence of a bond between the parent and the child is not fatal to a TPR under Least Restrictive Means analysis.
It’s difficult to say that any particular Florida Supreme Court decision had a steering effect on child welfare policy. Instead, the opinions seem to have nudged the Legislature and Department to modify existing procedures to achieve their desired results.
I suppose the take-away is that if you want to shift child welfare policy you should become the Governor or Secretary. If you can’t do that, you should at least become a legislator. If you’re not interested in all that work, filing a lawsuit here or there can’t hurt. I’m apparently in the wrong business.
The DCF trend report numbers are out, and the expansion is continuing statewide. You can see in the chart below that, due to its size, the Suncoast Region continues to be the largest driver of the statewide expansion, but the Northwest Region continues to show the largest individual growth. The two Southeast Region contracted again this month, and the Southern Region flattened and may be entering an expansion soon.
The statewide racial disparity index has been dropping, driven largely by an increase in white children entering care in the northern parts of the state. That raises the question of whether policy changes are removing any “white bonus” that may factor into the decision to remove children. The southern areas still show incredibly high racial disparity indices that are worth digging into deeper.
I’m running short on time today, so the rest of the charts are below. Or you can explore in unbearably more detail at tableau.com.
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.
I am honored and humbled to be this year’s statewide recipient of the Guardian ad Litem Program’s Excellence in Advocacy Award, which recognizes contributions to the child welfare system by attorneys for special needs children. I am so grateful to be on the list below with many attorneys who I call when I need help. These are really wonderful people who have devoted their lives to helping others, and this award recognizes the enormous value their work contributes to making life better for Florida’s families. I also commend the Legislature on creating the Attorneys for Special Needs Children registry, so that these highly vulnerable children and youth have their well-being promoted and rights protected legally as well as therapeutically and emotionally.
My name is on the list, but I need to raise up the amazing people at the Children & Youth Law Clinic who show up every day to make life better for our clients and all of Florida’s children. Our paralegal, Angela Galiano, holds our legal advocacy together with positivity and boundless energy. Our legal assistant, Mary Cruz, keeps our educational components running smoothly and focused. Our students sign up for a yearlong adventure with no inkling of where it will take them, and wind up finding themselves and their professional passions along the way. Our clients work with us to better their own lives — some of them even go on to become advocates for other youth through programs like Florida Youth Shine and Educate Tomorrow. Finally, I am blessed to have wonderful colleagues and mentors in Bernie Perlmutter and Kele Stewart who remind me that change happens because good people make it happen. Sometimes it requires a nudge, other times a push.
Thank you to Alan Abramowitz and the Guardian ad Litem Program for publicly recognizing our work together for Florida’s children. And thank you to everyone who has reached out to say congratulations.
The Winners of the GAL Program’s Excellence in Advocacy Award
Susan Winterberger – First Circuit
Stephanie Johnson – Second Circuit
Heidi Kemph – Third Circuit and First DCA
Connie Byrd – Fourth Circuit
Brenda Smith – Fifth Circuit
Bowdre McAllister – Sixth Circuit
Carol Kelley – Seventh Circuit
Nancy Wright – Eighth Circuit
Barbara Glass – Ninth Circuit
Deborah Wells – Tenth Circuit and Second DCA
Robert Latham – Statewide Winner, Third DCA and Eleventh Circuit
C. Michael Kelly – Twelfth Circuit
Scott Horvat – Thirteenth Circuit
Lawrence Kranert, Jr. – Fourteenth Circuit
Penny Martin – Fifteenth Circuit and Fourth DCA
Richard F. Joyce – Sixteenth Circuit
Linda Singer – Seventeenth Circuit
Pamela Bress – Eighteenth Circuit
Crystal Marsh – Nineteenth Circuit
Kathy Bruno – Twentieth Circuit
Leonard Helfand – Appeals
Excellence in Advocacy Awards
This year the Florida Guardian ad Litem Program wanted to recognize the hard work of Registry Attorneys who represent children with certain special needs in their circuit. Our GAL team recognizes the great work Registry Attorneys perform in dependency courts across the state. These attorneys are driven by their passion to make a difference in the life of a child with special needs. Registry Attorneys do work far beyond the money paid to them – often times donating any fees collected to a law school program or Legal Aid. Their impressive and dedicated representation of some of Florida’s most vulnerable dependent children under § 39.01305, is valued by not only the children they represent, but also by their peers who have recognized them for this award. From ensuring a child who did not need the prescribed psychotropic medications was taken off of them, to fighting for specialized counseling and treatment, these Registry Attorneys partnered with the GAL Program to do what was right for children.
Registry Attorneys have used their immense expertise for good. They take cases that are complicated and sometimes heart breaking – at a very minimal cost to the state. Their work with children helps families and inspires others. We thank them for being the standard bearer for other child welfare professionals and their work with children with special needs. The Florida Guardian ad Litem Program looks forward to this yearly award for Registry Attorneys who represent Excellence in Advocacy.
The Florida Supreme Court ruled yesterday that the cases of immigrant children pending appeal should be dismissed as moot when they turn 18, even if the lower court erred when the child was still a minor and even if the error prevents the child from applying for Special Immigrant Juvenile status.
In October of 2014, OICL, a 17-year-old immigrant child in Florida, brought a petition for dependency alleging that his parents had abandoned him and that he had no legal custodian. The trial court, Judge James L. Martz, denied the petition in December 2014 and the matter was appealed to the Fourth DCA. The Fourth DCA ruled against the child and the matter was appealed to the Florida Supreme Court. FLSCT accepted the case in August 2015.
OICL turned 18 in January 2015.
After 13 months, FLSCT ruled that the matter became moot when OICL turned 18. The Court declined to find that the ancillary benefits of a dependency petition (including immigration status) were sufficient to defeat mootness. The Court also declined to find that the matter was capable of repetition yet evading review. Justices Polston, Quince, Canady, and Lewis were in the majority. Justices Labarga, Pariente, and Perry dissented.
The practical result is that any child petitioning for dependency close to their 18th birthday will not be able to seek appellate review. A judge ruling on those petitions will certainly know that when setting the cases, weighing the evidence, and making a decision. Immigrant children of a certain age have just had their right of access to a fair court system severely curtailed.
On August 16, 2016 the Florida Supreme Court accepted a second SIJ case for review, BRCM. In this case, the petitioner is well under 18. The issue in BRCM, and many of these cases, is that judges have become emboldened to sweep immigrant children out of their courtrooms as quickly as possible. In the case of BRCM, the hearing lasted only 8 minutes before the judge had ruled to dismiss the petition — no notice, no witnesses, no trial.
The Florida Supreme Court has the opportunity to clarify that all people who come before the courts are entitled to a fair and impartial hearing, and that violations of due process will not be tolerated just because of the age and immigration status of the petitioner. If it will not reconsider this harmful ruling, the Florida Supreme Court should direct lower courts to accept these cases for certiorari review, or order expedited briefing schedules to ensure further miscarriages of justice do not occur.
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?