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Proposed DCF changes could divert millions from South Florida or send kids here for care

Amanda Williams Cruce and Deena Ruth Cruce had five foster kids in their home in September 2018. Here are four on a restaurant outing.
Amanda Williams Cruce and Deena Ruth Cruce had five foster kids in their home in September 2018. Here are four on a restaurant outing. Miami Herald file photo

Miami-Dade and Monroe counties could lose about $11.5 million in funding for their child welfare system in the next few years, under changes that are being weighed by the state Department of Children and Families.

But a potential plan to keep the existing funding in place could involve sending some of the state’s most troubled children from other regions to a facility in South Florida for more involved care, DCF Secretary Chad Poppell said, without additional funds to support them.

Those children could include some in the child welfare system in Hillsborough County, where the local lead agency has struggled to place teenagers who are resisting placements or therapy. DCF has in the last few months faced sharp criticism there for backing a plan that would steer those foster children into a secure juvenile justice facility. It could also include children who are victims of sex trafficking or have run away, Poppell said, broadly outlining a potential compromise that could temporarily keep the counties at the same level of funding allocated to them in past years.

Whatever those facilities or services might be, they would be offered statewide, he said: “It wouldn’t be just for children in the Southern Region. We would be able to send children from other parts of the state down there.”

That potential plan, which could reshape some elements of Florida’s long-standing community-based care model, stems from budget changes that Poppell is pushing that would increase funding to most parts of the state over the next four to five years. Under the model, Miami-Dade and Monroe, whose child welfare system is run by Citrus Family Care Network, would lose $11.5 million.

Poppell said he doesn’t want to cut South Florida’s funding in the near future, in part because Citrus just signed a substantial new contract earlier this year that could bind the department to the older funding model. Instead, he is eyeing the compromise to have Citrus provide more behavioral health services or consulting statewide, in exchange for keeping the money in its contract.

That compromise could also include the potential new facility — which Poppell noted could help address challenges that the long-beleaguered department has been facing in other regions.

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Florida Department of Children and Families Secretary Chad Poppell Florida Department of Management Services

In Hillsborough, which removes more children from their parents than any other county, some older children have bounced around dozens of foster or group homes in the area, with a few every night housed in offices because the state cannot find long-term placements and they have resisted being moved from home to home. The main community-based care agency there — Eckerd Connects — has come under fire repeatedly for its struggles to find more stable placements.

“There’s been a lot of attention placed on the children sleeping in the office buildings at night and in Hillsborough,” Poppell said last week, adding that “other kind of cohorts of children: the trafficked children, our runaway children across the state” are also at risk.

He said DCF approached Citrus, which provided behavioral health services before taking over child welfare services in much of South Florida this year, to “help us design some new types of services so that we could try something different with these children.”

Those new services would likely include “some consulting services with other [community-based-care organizations],” he said. But Poppell also said those services could include “a new facility” or “an expansion of existing facilities,” though details have not been determined, he said.

The plan could challenge at least one part of Florida’s long-standing privatized child welfare model, which divvies up the task of caring for the state’s vulnerable and abused children into several regions, each overseen by a private entity that contracts with DCF. Those entities in turn subcontract with several smaller agencies that often handle the nuts and bolts of individual cases and services.

That community-based care model, advocates say, is important for children to remain rooted in a familiar place especially when their personal lives are in turmoil.

“It is harmful to children when we move them from the community,” said Christina Spudeas, the executive director of the advocacy group Florida’s Children First. “To remove children from their community means removing them from all of their contacts. You have to be in the community to have that kind of contact.”

Spudeas added that the potential impact on children moved to other places could not be understated — disconnecting them from their schools, their mentors, their friends, family members and even case managers or guardians who might be involved in their care.

“You can’t place a child each night in a different place and give them any kind of security,” she said. “That’s how you create the instability. That’s how they don’t trust anyone.”

Eckerd’s chief of community-based care, Chris Card, said the agency was open to any help addressing its placement needs, noting that some of its children have been placed in other regions or out of state for intensive care before.

“There’s a bias to keeping the kids in the community, in our schools,” he said, though he added that “some of these youth we just haven’t been able to find the right program.”

Card also noted that the plan for a secure facility in Hillsborough, proposed by the county’s Juvenile Justice Advisory Board committee, also called for a new state law allowing children to be ordered into a program that could hold them for up to 90 days by a court. That proposal has been criticized by local advocates.

Solving the county’s issues with placing its problem foster kids, he said, comes down to long-standing funding shortfalls.

“We don’t have the financial resources we need to deliver services,” he said. “We think this new funding model will help fix that gap.”

For Citrus, the potential plan to provide more services — which is still being discussed — is being thrown around as a way for the organization to keep its funding, not increase it. Citrus recently took over child welfare operations in Miami-Dade and Monroe after a protracted, bitter procurement process that involved unseating the incumbent agency of a decade.

Any compromise being considered would require Citrus’ additional services to be provided within its existing budget, Poppell said, rather than allocating new funding.

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In a statement, Citrus Family Care Network division director Esther Jacobo said she was “encouraged by the department’s willingness to work with us as it relates to their proposed funding methodology. Any organization would be concerned after bidding for a contract, building services around the terms of the contract and facing the risk of a significant and devastating reduction of funding right out of the gate.”

She added that “we have engaged in positive conversations with the department and Secretary Poppell” about providing additional services, noting “these discussions are very preliminary at this time.”

In general, Jacobo has previously expressed reservations about any locked facilities like the one proposed in Hillsborough. In a September email to a local DCF official about children in both the child welfare and juvenile justice systems, Jacobo called those placements potentially “traumatizing for vulnerable youth.”

Delinquent behavior is often a manifestation of the trauma that these youth have experienced,” she wrote, adding that such programs “are directly opposite” federal laws that encourage family reunification and discourage congregate care: “Children thrive in homes and when they have connections to stable adults.”

Poppell said any official decisions about additional services from Citrus are still pending, and that he is expecting full recommendations from his staff by mid-December to prepare legislative requests in time for the session that begins in January.

The outcome could have significant impacts for all children in DCF’s care, one advocate said.

“It’s really important that the secretary and Citrus need to work out their communications and get on the same page,” said Roy Miller, president of the Tallahassee nonprofit The Children’s Campaign. “We’re talking about changing child welfare policy that could be a disaster for hundreds of thousands of children in the state of Florida if they don’t get it right.”

Tampa Bay Times reporter Christopher O’Donnell contributed to this report.

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Elizabeth Koh is a state government reporter in the Miami Herald and Tampa Bay Times’ shared Tallahassee bureau, where she covers the Florida Legislature with a focus on health care politics and policy. A Brown University graduate, she covered local politics for the Washington Post and national politics for the Dallas Morning News’ D.C. bureau before joining the Herald in 2017.
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