A Q and A With George Sheldon: October/November 2009
Florida just received $9.75 million in bonus funds from the federal government for its increase in adoptions of children from foster care. State Legislatures asked George Sheldon, secretary of the Florida Department of Children and Families, to discuss state strategies that contributed to the increase in adoptions and other innovations in foster care.
State Legislatures: How were children in the foster care system in Florida faring prior to the focus on prevention, reducing the numbers of children in care, and increasing adoption? How many children were in the system?
George Sheldon: In the past, abused and neglected children in Florida were removed from their families and put into foster care for their safety. A lot of the children, including young children, were placed into group foster homes. Not enough foster families were available to take children. Because of high caseloads, case managers could not give enough individual attention to each foster child. As of December 2006, prior to Governor Charlie Crist taking office, Florida had 29,255 children in foster care.
SL: What was the impetus for the current focus?
Sheldon: In 2007, Governor Crist in his first State of the State Address declared, “Our children need a voice. They need to be at the table because soon it will be their table.” The Florida Department of Children and Families began listening to current and former foster youth talk about their dislike of moving from foster home to foster home and their yearning for normalcy and permanency through reunion with their parents and siblings or adoption.
I learned so much from sitting down and talking with foster youth, the real experts in the child welfare system. Removing a child ought to be the last thing we do. We have got to be able to strengthen families.
We embraced the goal of safely reducing foster care by 50 percent by 2012. Whenever safely possible, we provide services to help families stay together and become stronger and healthier. Florida is one of six states participating in the National Governors Association Policy Academy on safely reducing the number of foster children. Casey Family Programs, whose goal is decreasing by 50 percent by 2020 the nearly 500,000 U.S. children in foster care, funds the academy.
What we heard from foster children about wanting to stay or be reunited with their families if possible was reinforced by recent research. In 2007, Joseph Doyle Jr. of the M.I.T. Sloan School of Management reported his findings that children in foster care overall did worse on significant outcomes in their lives than children who grew up with their parents and siblings. He examined the cases of 15,000 abused and neglected children in Illinois from 1990 to 2002, some who stayed with their families and others who were placed in foster care. The children studied by Doyle were not in the highest or lowest risk of abuse or neglect but in the “gray area” where the decision on keeping or removing them from families was more of a judgment call. Using the analytic tools of applied economics, he found:
• 44 percent of children who were in foster care were arrested, a rate three times higher than for children who stayed with their families.
• 56 percent of girls in foster care become teen moms, almost twice the rate as girls who stayed with their families.
• 33 percent of children who remained with their families held a job at least three months, while 20 percent of those who were in foster care held a job that long.
SL: What was the role of the federal waiver in the effort to safely reduce the numbers of children in care? What are the lessons learned—the challenges and successes - from the federal waiver from which other states can benefit?
Sheldon: Florida sought the type of federal funding that supports its desired outcomes for abused and neglected children and their families. The state as of October 2006 received the flexibility through a five-year federal waiver so that the funding follows the child instead of the placement of the child. Therefore Florida can provide services to children who stay at home and their families and not just to children placed in foster care, who traditionally were the sole recipients of federal funds. That enables a family-centered practice, which focuses on strengthening our families so they can safely keep their children at home and safe, whenever that is possible.
The major success is that almost 10,000 fewer Florida children have been removed from their families and placed in foster care. A 33 percent decrease of Florida children in foster care occurred statewide from December 2006 through August 2009. The number of children in foster care dropped from 29,255 to 19,436. That allowed 9,819 boys and girls, who in the past would have been taken from their homes after reports of abuse or neglect, to safely remain with parents and siblings and keep their ties to teachers and friends. The rate of children removed from their families fell to 3.19 per 1,000 children in the population as of August 2009, compared to 4.28 per 1,000 children as of December 2006. There also are significantly fewer children age 5 or younger in group homes where their caregivers change constantly by work shifts. There were 21 young children in such placements as of August 2009, down from 81 in February 2009.
Florida’s decrease in the number of children in foster care allows case managers more time to provide individual services to the foster children we have. It also drives better outcomes to help children achieve permanency—more funding can be shifted to prevention services to keep children safely with their families, and more time can be spent by case managers and the courts on achieving timely adoptions of children in foster care.
The major challenge is fully implementing our commitment to family-centered practice. Mothers, fathers and other relatives need to become involved right from the start in discussing what’s best for the child, the services needed for the family, and the goals that parents should achieve to safely keep the child at home or be reunited with the child. Listening to family members with respect, and reassuring them the state is more interested in helping them create a safe home environment than taking away their child, is our approach to family-centered practice. Getting families to talk about issues such as domestic violence, substance abuse, mental health and poverty that may be contributing to their child’s abuse or neglect can empower parents, especially if they are given a chance to shape the solutions. The Department of Children and Families is conducting extensive training so that child protective investigators and case managers are well-versed in and capable of applying the family-centered practice. Protecting children remains the department’s top priority. When children must be removed from a home because of dangerous circumstances, we don’t hesitate. Even so, removing children from parents is the exception, not the rule, and happens in only 1 of every 20 cases.
Perhaps the biggest lesson is the importance of transparency and accountability. A strong community buy-in is critical for both awareness and investment in resources to safely keep more children with their families, recruit more high-quality foster families and achieve more adoptions of children in foster care. It is necessary to have honest and open community dialogue about the needs of abused and neglected children and their families, who often struggle with mental illness, substance abuse, economic stress and domestic violence. This includes releasing information and talking about what happened when mistakes are made, as well as proactively developing solutions for problems and challenges we discover.
SL: How has Florida's privatization of child welfare services benefited children in foster care?
Sheldon: Florida’s community-based care allows our communities to take ownership of the outcomes of the children living there. In the past, foster children were seen in isolation as wards of the state. But the state is not a good substitute for a parent. Our many community partners—from law enforcement to judges, guardians ad litem, community-based care lead agencies, service providers, educators and child advocates—now have more of a stake in achieving permanency for their abused and neglected children.
Community involvement in the lives of abused and neglected children results in more children living in less restrictive, less expensive environments and more money available for prevention and adoption. Children experience less trauma and do better in less-restrictive environments, whether it is remaining at home with parents and siblings, living with relatives or being adopted by families.
Florida’s community-based care agencies are in charge of making sure all the needs of foster children are met, from appropriate initial placement to their health, education and well-being, their need for individualized services and their need to find safety and permanency. As our partners, these agencies have the advantage of knowing best what services, resources and alliances are available in their communities to help our foster children. They are encouraged to be innovative in developing best practices and raising community awareness about the importance of being supportive of children in foster care. The diversity of Florida, with significant numbers of African-Americans, Hispanics and other minorities, four major metropolitan areas, many rural communities and a transient population, is reflected in its families, and they are better served by the local agencies that know them well.
SL: Can you discuss the recent federal adoption incentive bonus award—nearly $10 million—from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services? What are some adoption promotion strategies that Florida used to increase the numbers of children adopted from foster care?
Sheldon: Our philosophy in Florida is to never give up on finding a family to adopt a foster child. We can’t give our foster children the sense of belonging or the unconditional love and understanding they so desperately crave. But we are determined in our conviction that there are loving, caring families willing to open their homes and their hearts to our children, enough for each and every one of our children to find a forever family.
For example, our new “Longest Waiting Teens” project helped spur the adoption of teenagers from foster care, and 26 of 103 foster youth identified, which includes siblings, have been adopted. We try to convince teenagers in foster care, who otherwise would age-out at 18, not to give up on finding an adoptive family that will be there for them throughout their lives. One of the longest waiting teens, Dalton Rosenberg, was 16 and in foster care for six years, before being adopted by a family that already had adopted another teen from foster care.
For two years in a row, a record number of Florida's children have been adopted from foster care, with 3,777 children adopted in FY 2009 and 3,674 children adopted in FY 2008. That contrasts with the much smaller number of Florida children adopted from foster care 10 years ago, when 1,504 children were adopted in 1999-00.
Florida recently received a nearly $10 million federal adoption incentive bonus, based on its increase in adoptions of children in foster care. A total of $35 million in adoption incentives is going to 38 states and Puerto Rico, with the second highest award going to Texas. Federal adoption incentives were enhanced in the Fostering Connections to Success and Increasing Adoptions Act of 2008. New incentives provide extra money to states when the children adopted from foster care are older or have special needs.
The Explore Adoption public awareness campaign, led by Governor Crist, Lt. Governor Jeff Kottkamp and the Governor’s Chief Child Advocate Jim Kallinger, has spotlighted the importance of finding “forever families” for foster children. Floridians can access profiles and photos of children available for adoption at www.adoptflorida.org. The day-to-day work of connecting foster children with adoptive parents and successfully moving the adoptions through the courts was performed by adoption counselors through community-based care partners and judges throughout Florida.
Beautiful, professionally taken photographs of children and youth in foster care who are available for adoption and waiting for a “forever family” are shown in “Heart Gallery” displays throughout the state.
We also use the family finders model of doing extensive and thorough searches for any family members that a foster child may be unaware of, but who may be out there, willing to adopt that child.
SL: What kinds of policy approaches would you recommend legislators consider as they examine foster care in their states with a goal of safely reducing the numbers of children in foster care?
Sheldon: Lawmakers must pass state laws that permit working with the families of abused and adopted children, to acknowledge their strengths, help them overcome their weaknesses and safely keep more families together. This requires legislatures to provide adequate funding for mental health and substance abuse treatment, domestic violence prevention and services and economic support. Even when states’ budgets are tight, funding the programs that prevent child abuse and neglect and help families is vital.
SL: What are the Department's goals for Florida's foster care system in the years ahead?
Sheldon: There always will be children coming into our care. We should continue to do everything we can to safely return children to their families. But if that’s not possible or safe to do, we must quickly give children permanency through adoption or placement with relatives.
Foster children should be treated with the same love and attention we give to our own children. Children who are abused and neglected need to be protected and feel safe. They also need full lives that include emotional support, education and normal child and family activities so they will grow up to feel they can do anything, including going to college, getting good jobs and leading successful lives.
We are changing our approach to recruiting, supporting and retaining quality foster families for our foster children. Three community lead agencies initiated the project last year under the leadership of Carol Shauffer of the Youth Law Center and Jane Soltis of Eckerd Family Foundation. National experts on building quality foster care and on marketing began working with our child welfare professionals on overhauling foster family recruitment to enhance the care of children and support foster and biological parents. New foster parents are connected with more experienced foster parents to help them deal with a foster child’s emotions and behaviors, access resources and navigate the dependency system. Foster families are being treated as our partners in helping biological families acquire the parenting skills they need to regain custody of their children. We are listening to foster youth and young adults who aged out of foster care to learn from their experiences on how to give children the security, normalcy and love they long for. The project creates healthy communications and relationships between foster and biological parents, so the child feels safely connected to both families. This is a departure from the traditional practice of discouraging foster parents from teaming with biological parents. Four additional agencies are involved now in the project.
We will continue building special relationships with people who believe in our foster youth. When I met Myron Rolle, a Rhodes Scholar and former college football star at Florida State University, we started a conversation about foster care, he met foster youth and the result was a weeklong summer Myron Rolle Wellness and Leadership Academy for boys and girls from foster care ages 12-14. The youth were inspired by Rolle and other top athletes to dream big and believe they could achieve anything. Another great partnership is with the Boy Scouts, which provide the facility for “Camp Sib” where we reunite separated siblings in foster care for a weekend in the woods. That project originated from a group of our child welfare workers.
We are implementing a mobile computing system so all case managers can document their visits to children in foster care with a photo that is stamped with the time, date and location. The system allows case managers to do their “paperwork” online in the field, giving them more time to work with children and families and cutting back time in the office.
We are committed to providing appropriate resources and applying the utmost attention to children in foster care. This year, for example, we signed an inter-agency agreement to ensure the education of foster children is a priority, from early learning through public school and college. We are the national leader in fully converting to electronic records in our Interstate Compact for the Placement of Children program, which significantly reduced the time to transfer children to placement with relatives out of state. We are sharing this ICPC technology with other states.
We are committed to offering substance abuse and mental health treatment, domestic violence prevention and services, and the economic assistance needed by children and families to prevent or treat the underlying causes of child abuse and neglect.
The Operation Full Employment initiative encourages DCF staff, our partner agencies and private businesses to train and hire former foster youth. We are partners in the Bob Butterworth Endowment helping former foster youth in college with their expenses. The Endowment’s first five scholarship winners are attending college with ambitions as inspirational as becoming a governor of Florida, an engineer, a social worker, a public administrator and a hotel owner.
We also recently initiated a Sub-Committee on Safe Families under our Task Force on Fostering Success, chaired by Bob Butterworth, my predecessor as DCF secretary and former Florida Attorney General. It will scrutinize our efforts to date on safely reducing the number of children in foster care while keeping families together. The sub-committee, led by a judge and composed of child advocates, will give DCF an independent and full analysis on how to improve these efforts while protecting the safety of our children. We are three years into the five years of the federal waiver, which gave us the funding flexibility to serve children at home and their families, as well as children in foster care. Sufficient time has passed for us to evaluate the results.
Finally, Florida’s child welfare system is more open and transparent than ever before. DCF is admitting and addressing our mistakes. That attitude of accountability, matched with our progress in child welfare, has brought credibility to DCF, our partners and the work we do to help Florida’s children and families.