Clinic Report Sheds Light on Most Vulnerable Children in Florida’s Foster Care System

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Rebekka Behr, Florida Youth Shine Fundraising Chair, Robert Latham, Associate Director Children and Youth Law Clinic.

Rebekka Behr, Florida Youth Shine Fundraising Chair, a youth-led advocacy group working to improve the child welfare system and Robert Latham, Associate Director Children and Youth Law Clinic

When a local juvenile justice committee in Hillsborough County issued a report on children refusing foster care placements in their circuit, the whole child welfare community took notice. The report described an epidemic of children demanding to sleep in offices or cars instead of at their designated foster care placements. The effect on the system, the report said, was widespread instability and risk of harm to the children.

The report called for extreme action: a change in the law to permit a judge to order a child to either go where they were told or face secure detention. “Children under the care and custody of Florida’s child welfare system,” the report concluded, “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.”

But to attorneys and social workers at the Children & Youth Law Clinic, the committee’s report raised more questions than answers. “There have always been foster children who refused placements occasionally, but why would so many children in one place do it all at once?” asked Robert Latham, associate director of the clinic. The search for answers led to a months’ long review of millions of entries of digital administrative records. The records detailed the foster care history of nearly 300,000 children who were in Florida’s foster care system since the early 2000s.

With the assistance of Nicole Toback, a student fellow at the clinic, and Margarita Aviles, a social work intern from Barry University School of Social Work, the clinic published the results in a 54-page report about the 49 children who refused placement in Hillsborough County since 2017.

The report found that 65% of the children who refused placement were non-white and evenly split among males and females. They ranged in ages from six to seventeen. The most striking feature, however, was their collective experience of instability in foster care: the group had a median of 21 different placements before refusing placement. Most children have two.

“These children experienced every problem in the child welfare system to the extreme,” said Latham. The report finds that the children who refused placement went through 10x as many placements as typical foster care teenagers. They spent seven-times more time in group homes and were moved 15 times more miles from placement to placement around the state – over 1,000 miles over average. Nearly 70% of those placements ended because the provider or program asked for the child to leave, not because the child refused.

For many of the children, their primary experience sleeping in an office was not because they refused. Most of the children only refused a placement once or twice, but many spent significant time sleeping in the agency’s offices because the agency could not find them a placement.

The report also documents the stories of each of the 49 children. Toback and Aviles reviewed each child’s placement history by hand, writing their narratives in an addendum that filled over 100 pages. The stories are tragic: children were kicked out of foster homes night after night, others were placed in programs for victims of human trafficking only to then be transferred to group homes where they had been arrested, or Baker Acted before.

“You can’t read these and think that locking the child up would have solved anything," said Toback. "Many of them were in secure placements at some point, only to be released back to the same dysfunctional system that didn’t know how to care for them.”

Latham presented the report’s results to the Florida Senate’s committee on Children, Family, and Elder Affairs and to the Community Alliance in Tampa. He hopes the report will help policymakers better understand the complex relationships at play in the foster care system.

In addition to its work with over 80 individual clients, the clinic has made fighting foster placement instability for children with emotional behavioral disorders a key component of its policy advocacy over the last five years. In 2018, Latham and Co-Director Bernie Perlmutter joined other advocates as next friends in a federal lawsuit over the treatment of foster children in Florida’s Southern Region. That lawsuit ended with a settlement and an enforceable commitment by the Department to improve its system of care.

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