Roundup: goodbye to a fierce advocate, legislative malaise, grand jury hijinks, and more

There’s a lot going on in child welfare, so let’s get to it.

RIP Nancy Detert

It was reported that former Senator Nancy Detert passed away peacefully at home last night. She was 78. As senator, she used her power to materially improve the lives of foster kids. And I mean materially. She sponsored the bill that created the Extended Foster Care program, which provided significantly more support to foster kids aging out with disabilities and life difficulties. She sponsored the normalcy bill, which gave foster parents more say (i.e., less liability) to approve recreational and social activities for foster kids; and the Keys to Independence Act, which financially supported foster kids to get drivers licenses. She sponsored the Regis Little Act creating a process to assess foster kids with severe disabilities to determine if they need a probate guardian. She sponsored the bill to allow juveniles to expunge their records. She sponsored the bill that provided funding to nonrelative caregivers. And the bill that created fatality reviews.

Those were amazing years. She did amazing work.

Senator Nancy Detert with Florida Youth SHINE, ca. 2016.

What’s going on in the legislature this week?

The legislature isn’t doing anything close to what I described above. It is all very underwhelming.

The bill that creates the run-away task force is still “in messages,” meaning in discussions on the language between the House and the Senate.

The children’s ombudsman bill got a yes vote in its first committee on Tuesday. Two more to go.

And the bill that would amend the CBC contracts to require concurrent case planning and other statutorily required things is set for a vote in the Senate on April 11.

The GAL Office bill, which would codify its current practice model and eliminate special needs attorneys for kids, has passed two committees with two more to go in both the House and the Senate. I definitely have lots of thoughts on this bill, but I have been fascinated by the vigor the GAL people are putting into it. Like, it’s going to make being a GAL awful if there is a fiduciary duty that is enforceable against the volunteers. They are so excited to turn that program into a big law firm without any real reflection on what that will mean for recruitment. The dog who caught the car, I guess. Have fun with all your new obligations.

The grand jury report on unaccompanied kids almost gets it

The Florida grand jury looking at immigration policies could easily be written off as a political stunt, but it actually interviewed a bunch of people and reviewed undeniably real IDs found discarded in the dirt at the border, so maybe it’s legit? You can read for yourself and decide. Its docket is here.

The latest presentment looks at unaccompanied children placed in Florida. It admits that it didn’t attempt to enforce its subpoena for officials from ORR and includes lines like, “What is this agency hiding from the American people???” . You’re not really looking for answers when you write stuff like that. I spend most of my days trying to make government agencies tell me things. It almost always takes more than just asking, and I don’t have grand jury subpoena powers.

There are lots of problems with the UAC system, no doubt, which the report does document. Undertrained staff, fly-by-night subcontractors, lack of consistent knowledge and information, looking the other way to avoid problems, making kids more vulnerable to crime and exploitation. But what are the proposed solutions?

The Grand Jury’s first recommendation is that anyone in Florida who has custody of a child through ORR should have to report it to DCF and file for custody under chapter 751 or 63, or face a felony charge. I laughed. It’s expensive to file those petitions, and I’m old enough to remember attorneys for UACs (myself included) trying to do this exact thing in the mid-2010s and judges denying the petitions as “not truly abandoned” by the parents or “not in need of custody” by the sponsors. There’s a whole Florida Supreme Court case about it. Judges would (and sometimes still do) deny cases because of the ORR sponsorship agreements, and attorneys beg them to read it closely and realize it’s not custody and these families need help.

Not that foster care is always better. This grand jury would find almost all the same problems in foster care, with kids being shuffled around for money, placed with questionable characters, and harmed by the people tasked with caring for them. They complain about expending money to expand a UAC system that does so much harm, listing individual kids who got hurt and noting that “even one such easily preventable case is unacceptable.” Welcome to the party, new abolitionists.

The relatives’ rights lawsuit was refiled

Last year a group of foster child relatives sued everyone in the system over separation from their grandchildren, nieces, and nephews. It was a powerful statement, but unfortunately maybe too powerful. It ran over 100 pages. The judge dismissed it earlier this year as a shotgun complaint. That means it was too complicated, too difficult to read, too much. One of the hardest parts of lawyering is taking the flood of stories and pain that a person experienced and distilling it down into a few lines of legally cognizable claims. Maybe there should be cause of action for simply being overwhelmed by grief.

The new complaint, at 43 pages, is much more manageable. It alleges customs and practices of kids being separated from their families in violation of state and federal laws. It points to questionable cases where families who were connected to the system itself (agency board members, for example) got the kids instead. You see why telling UAC relatives to call DCF is not really a solution to the problem? If you do get DCF involved, you could lose custody and never see your loved one again. Who would trust that system?

Relatives are the largest single placement type for kids in the system. About 40% of kids are placed with them, and since 2020 over 25,000 kids were adopted by relatives and another 67,000 were put into permanent guardianships with relatives. So many cases wouldn’t come in at all if relatives had more options and support to help their own families.

The lawsuit largely hangs on a First Amendment right to association between children and their extended families. Courts have been reluctant to recognize that right because it can create intractable conflicts with parental rights. But maybe compared to strangers, relative relationships will finally get the constitutional protection they deserve. We will wait and see.

Something to read: Living in Adoption’s Emotional Aftermath

The New Yorker has an article that centers the experiences of adopted people. It’s worth a read, especially if most of your information about the process is from people who adopted other people instead.

Our clinic mostly represents older kids and young adults, and that frequently includes people who are adopted. Some of those adoptions “failed,” and our clients were sent back to the system. Some of those clients turned 18 and were kicked out, left home, or just started seeking answers.

One of the simplest and most powerful things we do for those clients, when they want to, is help change their names back to their original birth names. The paperwork is easy, but finding a name can take months, if we ever learn it at all.

The fact that adoption records are sealed forever, even when the adopted person is an adult, is something most people don’t appreciate as a serious and unique harm to adopted people. Whatever social policies justified that historically don’t exist anymore in the world of DNA tests, social media, and modern views of personal autonomy. The records exist but are hidden. The oldest client we ever had was in her 60s and trying to get her pre-adoption records. After a lot of work, we learned DCF actually had them. When we got them in the mail, they were full of black redaction bars. She was still so happy.

You can learn more about legislative efforts to make adoption records available here.

That’s it for now

Last week I did this post on Friday and learned that nobody reads posts on Friday. So happy Thursday, everybody!


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