Appalled by foster abuse findings, Florida senator pushes for common sense change

Michael Braga, USA TODAY
·5 min read

In response to an investigative series outlining problems in Florida’s child welfare system, Sen. Lauren Book, D-Hollywood, sent a letter to the head of the Department of Children and Families demanding that more be done to safeguard the state’s most vulnerable children.

Florida Sen. Lauren Book (D - Hollywood)
Florida Sen. Lauren Book (D - Hollywood)

The series published by USA TODAY Network explained how an increasing number of children were removed from their homes in Florida after 2014, but state legislators and child welfare officials never figured out how to provide safe places for them to live. As a result, nearly 200 were placed in homes with foster parents who were previously accused of abusing or neglecting children in their care.

“The series indicates that children were subjected to abuse that could have been avoided,” Book said in her letter to DCF Secretary Chad Poppell. “It is inconceivable that the individuals as described in the articles were allowed to have children continually placed with them, even when there were seemingly clear warning signs.”

Related database: Track abuse and neglect in Florida's foster care

Read the investigation: Florida took thousands of kids from families, then failed to keep them safe.

More: Foster kids lived with molesters. No one told their parents.

Book, who was herself a victim and survivor of child abuse and who now chairs the Florida Senate’s Children, Families, and Elder Affairs Committee, said she intends to push for common sense changes in the year ahead that come as a direct response to USA TODAY Network’s investigation.

They include:

  • Prohibiting children from being placed in homes where abuse had been credibly alleged or suspected. “I understand and respect an individual’s constitutionally protected right to due process, however, I support a freeze on a foster parent’s license once allegations have been made, even if charges and convictions have not occurred, in an effort to keep children safe,” Book said in her letter.

  • “When a foster parent is found to be abusive, the state should race at ‘breakneck’ speed to follow up with children previously placed in the home to help identify other victims and provide life-saving support and counseling,” Book says in her letter. “The allegations that at least 600 children having been housed by 40 known abusers over the last six years have never received even a single follow-up communication or ‘care’ from the system which proverbially placed them in the lion’s den are unacceptable, and immediate action must be taken here.”

  • “Adults who have been accused of or charged with violent or reckless behavior should not be granted foster licenses,” Book continued. “We must redesign the system to better alert us of concerning or criminal conduct.”

  • “Over the past six years, more than 300 welfare workers have been accused of or admitted to lying on case files, most often stating that corners were cut because caseloads were unmanageable … Individuals who fall into this category should be summarily discharged,” Book said. “If it is determined that they have lied, as has been asserted, to substantiate or support their positions or to hide getting work done, they should possibly be held criminally accountable, and if statutory change needs to take place holding your employees more accountable, I am prepared to file such a bill … We should also explore ways to better support caseworkers who are overloaded and overwhelmed so they make safe decisions in case management.”

“I understand that the need for fostering greatly outweighs the current availability of care and am aware of how difficult it is to provide quality care when a system is overloaded, underfunded, and understaffed, but the errors made have been egregious, and the issues outlined above indicate system-wide policy failure.” Book concluded. “While I recognize this shortage, we cannot allow corners to be cut to create supply while keeping children in harm’s way. Simply put: we must do a better job. Children should expect more from us and so should the public as a whole.”

Calls to DCF for comment were not returned, but many of the issues broached by Book were previously addressed by Poppell in an Oct. 15 email.

In that message, he acknowledged that Florida’s child welfare system has been under-resourced for years and that DCF has taken “an extremely passive role in driving performance.” As a result, “DCF lost the public’s trust in its ability to care for Florida’s children,” Poppell said.

DCF Secretary Chad Poppell said in January that many problems in Florida’s foster care system stem from its privatization in the early 2000s.
DCF Secretary Chad Poppell said in January that many problems in Florida’s foster care system stem from its privatization in the early 2000s.

But Poppell argued that since he took charge in January 2019, he has worked bring greater accountability to the child welfare system through the passage of the Accountability Act, which enables his organization to more closely monitor operations and review many more child welfare cases.

He added that during the past legislative session, DCF received additional funding – including $12 million for more case managers, $18 million for prevention services and $16 million to improve child welfare and safety management services to prevent children from being removed from their homes.

According to Sen. Book, much more is needed in the year ahead, and she believes the legislature will make a lot of progress. That’s because incoming Senate President Wilton Simpson, R-Trilby, and Florida First Lady Casey DeSantis have both made child welfare a priority.

“We’ve got an incoming Senate president who cares about child welfare, and he has a vision for what child welfare should look like,” Book said. “I think there will be a lot of us working together for change.”

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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Florida foster investigation prompts calls for legislative change