Florida’s foster care system, and how badly it sucks

The following is a guest editorial I wrote for the current edition of Folio Weekly. Consider it one in a series of occasional rants.

My daughter spent the first nine months of her life in a bassinet in a Latin American orphanage.

I don’t mean that she slept in the bassinet. I mean that she lived there. She spent perhaps an hour each day being held for a few minutes, getting a quick bath, getting her diaper changed — then it was back to the bassinet. At feeding time, the orphanage nannies propped a bottle up next to her head where she could reach it.

So instinctive was her need for some type of stimulation that she repeatedly rubbed her head back and forth against the sheets until a cyst rose on the back of her skull. It developed into a staph infection when the orphanage doctor spliced it open.

But you know, it could have been worse. She could have been born into Florida’s foster care system.

News broke late last month that a Canadian couple, Andrew Dolan and Suzanne Tyler, has filed suit against Family Support Services, the private nonprofit responsible for caring for those Northeast Florida children taken from their families due to neglect or abuse. The couple adopted two children out of Florida’s foster care system through Family Support Services. After the adoption was finalized, the couple says, the children began to reveal terrible stories of physical, sexual and emotional abuse from their time in foster care.

The children, a boy and girl now 6 and 8 years old, were taken from their birth mother in 2005. Over the next four years, they lived in no fewer than five homes. At one point, they were adopted by a West Virginia family — but the family returned them five months later, presumably because their history had made them too difficult to parent.
To their credit, Dolan and Tyler do not want to give up their family. They want additional financial assistance (beyond their current $900 monthly stipend) to help with the years of therapy the kids will require, and compensation for the treatment their children received at the hands of the state of Florida.

Though there is much yet to be discovered in the case, it seems probable that some abuse occurred. The very first home the kids lived in was shut down after the foster mother was convicted of child abuse. And the children’s current behavior, which includes bouts of violence, suggests they endured significant trauma.
But let’s assume — for cynicism’s sake — that the abuse didn’t occur. Let’s take only what we know: that during the first few years of these siblings’ lives, they were neglected by their birth mother, taken from her forever, given a series of temporary foster mothers, and then adopted by parents who decided to give them back. This sequence of events isn’t unusual; in Florida, foster children spend an average of two years in state custody, and nearly 40 percent of them reside in at least three different homes during that time.
Such statistics are hard to swallow when read in the abstract. That’s why we tend to keep them there. But common decency demands that we look at it more realistically.

So picture your own child. Or your nephew, or grandchild. Imagine that child, say, neglected or molested so often that the police took her away from the only family she knew. The child goes to live with a foster mother, who beats her with a belt. So she goes to live with another foster mother who can’t keep her very long. So she goes to live with another, who has 10 other children in the home. So she goes to live with another, who can’t tolerate the behavior she’s developed over the past few years. This all happens before the child can write her own name.

Abuse and neglect, by traditional definitions, are bad enough. But our failure to give these children any kind of stability in the wake of their trauma also constitutes abuse and neglect. The damage done to the psyche of a child who grows up without parental love is monumental and can be irreparable.

Nearly 30,000 children reside in Florida’s foster care system right now. Many of them are being loved and supported through their rough patches. Many more are not. And the grim reality is about to get a lot worse.

Gov. Rick Scott’s budget strips nearly $200 million from the state Department of Children and Families. Asked how an agency with scant resources and a history of kids falling through the cracks can absorb that kind of financial body blow, Scott offers only his signature nothing: He has “confidence” that DCF officials will figure something out.
Andrew Dolan has said that had they known of the children’s history, they would never have adopted them.

He’s been criticized for that, and for seeking monetary damages.

But as an adoptive parent, I know what he means. The fact that they’re keeping the kids is paramount; it’s the best shot these children have at some degree of normalcy and happiness. And the financial aspect? I’m guessing he looks into the tortured faces of his children every day and imagines what the state of Florida did to cause them so much pain. “Somebody,” he thinks, “somebody’s got to pay for that. Somebody besides these kids.”

19 responses to Florida’s foster care system, and how badly it sucks

  1. debra coram says:

    This is all true!! My oldest son was one of the blessed ones. His family member fostered him for a year, but there are so, so many who don’t have that priveledge. These kids didn”t ask for this. IN fact all they need is a lot of love in most cases. Yes, the child care system really needs a makeover in the worst way. Who do we contact if the govenor has his mind set on cutting the almost absent budget to start with. Thank you Tricia for bringing this to light. Most people don’t even know how critical this subject is and most don’t even know it is critical at all,

  2. Dan says:

    Humanity aside (way too far aside), someone needs to remind the ideologues who cut these budgets that the cost of providing proper care to children is tiny compared to that of incarcerating them as adults.

  3. Leslie says:

    It is also very telling that the State of Florida does not keep any statistics of the number of failed adoptions from foster care. That statistic would be incredibly revealing and we must demand that it be kept and revealed. I say this with no reflection meant on the Dolans at all; I am supportive of their position. However, DCF rushes adoption, often with but a three month period, that is not enough time to research, learn of an adoptive parent(s) suitability, for example the Barahona case. If you had a friend marrying someone after 3 months you would suggest to your friend to take more time to judge suitability and they are an adult!

  4. Joan Romano says:

    The situation is beyond disturbing – this regime refuses to recognize the living, breathing children suffering here. I find it really ironic that I stood in an orphanage in China, where people had told me my poor, neglected babies were probably being abused, and saw their caregivers crying that they were leaving and there wasn’t much, but it was clean and warm and they got held a lot. And here, in this supposedly wealthy country, people don’t get even more irate and march on the governor’s mansion.

  5. Karen Babb says:

    Having worked for a few years in Juvenile Court with the job of scheduling panel reviews of each child in Foster Care in my county, I’ve witnessed both the worst and the best of this system. Not all Social Workers should be case managers for foster children, not just anyone will make a good foster parent. The sad fact is there are way more children needing a loving, safe foster home than there are families, who are willing to give these children some love and understanding. I don’t believe the foster parents are trained well enough. Surely they understand that these children who come from chaos and abuse are going to have some problems, yet they take a child in only to send them on to another home, because.. “they were just too unruly”, “didn’t fit in with their family”. Imagine, for a few moments, that you are five years old. The police have entered your house, arrested your parents, and took you to a strangers home. You’ve come from a home where all you get is a slap or much worse for your doled out attention. Next, you’re alone most of the day, because mom or dad are in the bathroom working on their next high, or you’re in the backseat of a car that is speeding and weaving down a highway because the parent is too drunk to drive, or you’re afraid to go to sleep at night because the man in the house might come slip into your bed and do to your body what you don’t even have words for to express to someone to let them know the fear and pain that you endure. Now you’re that same five year old who is placed in a foster home, hoping for some warmth, safety, food, clean clothes and just maybe a kind word. What you get, is an adult stranger yelling at you for eating the last biscuit, or because your feet have grown and the lousy check they get once a month doesn’t pay them enough to buy you more. So, you’re passed from home to home to home over the next few years. IF you’re lucky you’ll stay at one home for at least six months, but if you do one thing that upsets your new parents off you go to some new ones. In six months time, your parents should have worked their case plan given to them by the court to get you back. Unfortunately, this doesn’t always happen. Have you grown into an angry child?? I WOULD THINK SO!!
    However, in case I sound like I think the government doesn’t take good care of our children. IT’S NOT THE GOVERNMENTS PLACE TO RAISE OUR CHILDREN! Mom and Dad are suppose to do that!! Unfortunately, there is no test you have to pass before you can be a parent.. I would change this if I was President! I am forever thankful for those who work as a Social Worker and actually do the job they’re hired for!! God Bless your Souls!

  6. Lori says:

    Nubia and Victor had an Aunt and Uncle that were able to care for them there was nothing wrong with them but the agency and court chose its foster parents over family to adopt them in spite of this. DCF claims there was a lack of communication and that’s why the barahonas were allowed to adopt in spite of the red flags, In every case I’ve read about where a child dies in foster care or foster-adopt home there were red flags. These agencies know what’s going on they lie and cover up abuse in their foster homes because they are making money and lots of it. After reading all these stories I am convinced that there is no way they could have not known. In one case in Michigan a boy named Ricky Holland was murdered by his foster-adopted parents and while the police were investigating the case and made it very clear that the foster-adopt parents were their main suspect the agency pushed through the adoption of his younger brother to this same couple. They were later convicted of murder. Until the corruption in child welfare ends and they stop the huge government give a ways for these kids in care there will continue to be agencies who make decisions on what’s best for their bottom line and people who want to adopt kids for the money it brings in to their home and not for love and these kids will be no better off than the homes they were taken from and sometimes worse off.

  7. Erin says:

    You make the DCF situation much more personal.

    Incredibly stupid stuff Rick Scott is doing to an already very broken system! He also nixed the Pill Mill Bill, allowing DCF to track suspected prescription drug abuser through the DEA…nice!

    These children are part of our future. At this rate, we are going to have to keep working because there will be very few economically and socially contributing adults to society – they will all be on disability with their special needs no one took care of when they were small!

    Erin

  8. Scott says:

    You are missing your great opportunity to show Gov Scott where the big money tree is, so he can just shake off a few hundred million dollars to fund this. No tree? Well, where do you think he’s supposed to find the money to start to dig the state out of the massive budget hole it’s in? You know, like he was elected to do?

    • Tricia says:

      Scott, I know…no easy answers. But taking care of kids in need seems like a no-brainer.

  9. Randy says:

    I have recently found out that childrens lives are being traded on the stock market. Our DCF workers can now have stock options and 401k in this company. For-Profit companies like Providence Service Corp., are running our Social Services, no one should make a profit on the backs of our kids.

    The whole DCF system needs to be re-done

  10. zumpie says:

    Just wnated to say how sadly, this is true in foster care EVERYWHERE! I’m in Oregon and have seen first hand the very negative things even well intentioned foster parents can do.

    My sister-in-law’s sister, a woman with no parenting experience, decided that she and her husband would become foster parents. She clearly pressured him into it, because it’s quite apparent he has zero interest in children and left, most, if not all parenting to his wife.

    A pair of siblings were placed with them. This was the third foster home this boy and girl had been placed in, despite their recent entry into care and their respective ages of 6 and 5.

    It became almost immediately apparent that Sheila was completely unable to handle them. She made huge mistakes that ran fully contrary to basic foster training guidelines (e.g. making them get rid of their toys to “simplify their lives”), promptly insisting she would adopt them (depsite the children expressing desire to return home to their birth parents). Most importantly, even though the kids were in school/daycare all day long, Sheila routinely shuffled them between her relatives for lengthy babysitting every weekend, almost immediately. When babysitting wasn’t available, she placed them in structured activities that she could leave them at. In other words, she avoided caring for them at all costs.

    Neither Sheila nor her caregiving relatives seemed to understand that children are messy, noisy and don’t always respond as you would wish them to. And that’s “normal” kids. At one point Sheila slipped and broke her arm while chasing the boy, she blamed this accident entirely on him and had him removed from her care, the court order keeping these two kids together vacated and got the boy placed in a treatment center.

    The girl remained with her and because Sheila couldn’t handle very normal child behaviors, the girl now attends intensive therapy FIVE days a week (more often than in-patients in the mental ward do). She has also decided the little girl had been molested–even though she doesn’t indicate ANY of these behaviors.

    To give an example—yesterday we actually met the girl. She’s actually quite delightful. She’s neither overly friendly or overly shy with anyone. My 12 year old daughter was enchanted by her and promptly took her under her wing.

    For the most part, Sheila ignored the little girl the entire time–but periodically she’d get upset because the kid liked my daughter, better (or at least did on that day).

    It was somehow “inappropriate” that my daughter wanted to team with Serena during the Easter egg hunt and give all her eggs to Serena. It was “sexually precocious” when Serena fashion modeled the many Mardi Gras beads and rings she had found in the eggs. It was very, very bad when they wanted to ride their croquet mallets as princesses on ponies—-but perfectly okay if they had been cowboys.

    Sheila kept trying to separate them—evne though they wanted to play together. Finally she came and asked me to separate them (but felt no need to explain any of her reasoning). When I pointed out they were simply kids, enjoying themselves, she sighed and went inside to drink wine with her sister—and ignored the kids for the next two hours. If she were soooooo concerned about regression, etc, why did she give up so easily and go off and drink?

    We all know why—for an afternoon, she didn’t get to control her foster kid. And knew Serena would probably be overtired and whiney at the end of the day. Like any other kid. But unlike parents who know what they’re doing, evne that was more than she could handle.

    • Tricia says:

      What a sad story. My heart breaks for that little girl. Thanks for reading, and for teaching your daughter such compassion. Come back soon.

      • zumpie says:

        Tricia,

        Thanks for that—I’m also really concerned about the little boy. Another reason why they had him removed was because he kinda flipped out after a visit with his bio-mom in rehab at Christmastime. I’m pretty sure even as an adult I’d probably be pretty strongly affected by all this, let alone a little boy.

        I don’t understand why our society blames these poor children and tries to label what are either normal kid behaviors or their sad, primitive coping mechanisms and then blames them for it.

        And yes, I am thinking about becoming a foster parent–if only for those two kids. But I honestly don’t think my husband would agree, plus our house is pretty small and only has 1 bathroom. But believe me, I’m thinking it.

        • Chelsea says:

          Thank you so much for sharing that story, it is truly heart breaking. Shame on her for breaking up those siblings, they truly only had each other. These are the types of people we allow in our foster care system? The type to neglect and blame our children? That is not safe at all.

          I am glad that little girl found a friend in your daughter. Your daughter sounds like she lit up her whole day!

          Thank you for sharing your story.

  11. Chelsea says:

    See, this is EXACTLY why I want to become a social worker. I want to help these poor children, and try to FIX the foster care system in FL. I do not know how, but I still have 4 years of schooling to come up with plans and strategies. The foster care system should definitely NOT be open to any ol’ person who wants a child in their home, there should be extensive psychiatric questionnaires to get to the root of these peoples souls, and that is DEFINITELY not all there should be. Everyone deserves to be loved, and the Foster Care system does not give anyone that chance, it seems.

    Most of the young adults just coming out of Foster Care are just thrown into the streets and expected to survive on their own. That is just plain wrong. Also, many Social Workers do not try to connect with the children they are dealing with, I guess they don’t understand that they can show love too! That child is NOT just another work assignment, they are human beings!

    I am very happy you posted this article, thank you so much!

    • tricia says:

      Thanks for reading, Chelsea, and for caring about the issue. Empathy is the start of change, I believe. Come back soon!

  12. Jeffrey says:

    Lord , I had no idea it was this bad in this state , after 5 months of trying to get my nephew into FAMILY custody it has happened
    they have provided me with no information as to what and who is going to provide me with support and among picking the child up from the states custody i was to sign for his medication and that was it no ID produced nothing i got a child in the parking lot of a Denny’s Restaurant … is it me or is there something wrong here ???? He is my Nephew and im glad to have him but this system is a MESS MESS 5 months of

  13. Nancy says:

    At first I was extremely angry at your initial representation of Florida foster parents. We are not all as you described. We love our foster children and have adopted two of my kids (from foster care) already. We take great pride in the fact that we foster sibling groups so the kids may stay together. I will say my concern is less about the few “bad seeds” (foster parents) I can only atest to my county, but the system itself. Would you like to know how the state will save that $200 million. They are sending these kids right back home to the initial abuse their parents subjected them to. DCF will save money by not having them in care to begin with. My house has turned into a glorified babysitting service. The children are returned as fast as the judge can process the paper work. I was told that there is a reunification quota for the state to meet (regardless of the child’s safety) and that there is addittional Federal money awarded to reunify above and beyond the initial quota. I have not investigated this information yet, but I guarantee you that children have left my home and been put right back into the exact same emotional abuse, sexual abuse and neglect the investigators had substantiated to remove them from the beginning. This system is beyond broken. I was a foster parent in another state and it was not run like this.

    Another point I would like to make, financially could you raise your child on the daily stipend provided? Needing clothes, food, school supplies, touletries, b-day, holidays, gas/travel to & from dentist, drs. etc. daycare and childhood activities. I mean really provide a decent quality of life . . . I doubt it. We have tried.This state needs to climb out of the 50’s. Have higher expectations and crieria for recruiting new foster parents. BUT you need to change the culture of the system first. Provide more support to the children and foster families, be more respectful of the foster parents and their home and family, and provide a larger stipend so these children can do and have what they need. Florida is hyping this “normalcy initiative” yet they treat the children and foster families terribly and I might add, there “NORMAL” is sub par for most families. What it means is that the foster parents are to flip the bill on providing to the foster children what they provide for their own (which some of can affors to do while others can not) and, oh by the way, you, the foster family pay for it.
    As far as the failed adoptions. I don’t doubt there are far more failures than successes. Florida waits until these children are so neglected, so abused, so detached from caregivers with the constant efforts for reunification that they are but shells of what they once were. I have taken children back from a reunification (or 2) and the little ones are but a shadow of who they were when they first entered my home. I believe in reunification if it is in the best interest of the child, not for the parents or the State of Florida financial gain. We were lucky, my girls were taken from neglect and abuse early (after 2 atempts at reunification) We have had 3 years of extensive therapy and have a therapist on an as needed basis as we head toward our teen years. We are realists and understand parents have rights, but we also know that children in the state of Slorida have none. The are property of their parents. The parents rights supercede everything, even the child’s safety and well being. I believe reunification should be a goal but it should not be a given. I believe parents need to work and work hard at getting their kids beack. They are precious and deserve love and kindness.

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