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Lawsuit says foster kids were housed for days in an office

When homes weren't available, children were housed without proper bedding, food or showers, the suit claims.

By CURTIS KRUEGER
Published April 4, 2006


Foster children in Tallahassee have regularly slept in a conference room for up to two weeks because officials responsible for their care couldn't find homes for them, two children's advocacy groups said Monday.

A lawsuit expected to be filed today says that up to 10 children at a time have been housed in a suburban Tallahassee office building without proper bedding, food or showers.

The foster children have included boys and girls, ages 7 to 17, and occasionally children "who have histories of acting out sexually against other children," according to a draft of the lawsuit reviewed by the St. Petersburg Times on Monday. The lawsuit will be filed on behalf of four foster children and others like them by attorneys for the Children's Advocacy Center at the Florida State University College of Law and the Youth Law Center in San Francisco.

The foster children, who were removed from their homes to protect them from abuse or neglect, left for school or other settings during the day. The office building houses administrative offices for the state Department of Children and Families.

Although the lawsuit concerns children in North Florida, it strikes at an issue that has affected child welfare agencies in Pinellas, Broward, Orange and other counties: the ability of Florida's state-funded foster care system to find safe homes quickly for vulnerable children.

The lawsuit is being filed against the DCF and Big Bend Community Based Care in Tallahassee, the nonprofit agency hired by the DCF to place foster children.

Mike Watkins, executive director of Big Bend Community Based Care, said he did not know his agency was about to be sued until a reporter told him Monday. He agreed that a conference room is not an appropriate home for a child, and that he has worked hard to reduce the numbers since taking over in December.

"We do not condone children staying in that environment, in an office setting," Watkins said. "We want them to be placed in appropriate, licensed settings."

Caseworkers and in some cases police officers were present through the night, Watkins said. He said he had no knowledge of the agency using a babysitting service to supervise the children, an allegation in the draft of the lawsuit.

He pointed to a steady decline in the use of the conference room: Between April and June 2005, 13 children spent a total of 41 nights there. From July through September 2005, that dropped to six children who spent a total of 17 nights.

Between October and December 2005, only one child stayed in the conference room, for eight nights. And by the end of last month two children had stayed in the room for a total of 12 nights.

While the lawsuit alleges that 10 children spent the night simultaneously in the conference room, Watkins said only one child at a time had stayed there during the past nine months.

Youths who stayed in the conference room often had been kicked out of other shelters because they broke rules or were disruptive, Watkins said. "Almost all cases have significant complicating factors that basically rendered the placement options unavailable to them," he said.

Carole Shauffer, executive director of the Youth Law Center, said the reductions sound good, but she's still troubled to hear of a child spending a week or more in the conference room, especially if the child is troubled and needs mental health services.

"If parents treated their children this way, the state would remove the kids," Shauffer said in a prepared statement. "It is unconscionable that children can end up spending weeks living in the building and sleeping in office chairs or on top of conference tables."

The children included a 13-year-old girl who is developmentally disabled and another 15-year-old who has been diagnosed with multiple psychiatric disorders and is asthmatic.

The state DCF hired Big Bend to coordinate foster care and adoption in the region. The agency has used a similar approach in the Tampa Bay area.

Foster care agencies for Pinellas, Pasco and Hillsborough counties said they are not experiencing these difficulties. But similar problems have cropped up around the state. Foster children in 2002 were sometimes sleeping in Pinellas sheriff's offices past midnight as investigators worked to find them temporary homes.

Jeff Rainey, executive director of Hillsborough Kids, said his agency has worked to accommodate teenage foster kids by having a shelter where youths will not be thrown out even if they have broken the rules at other homes. That way, he said, they at least know they can have a home to stay in.

--Curtis Krueger can be reached at krueger@sptimes.com or 727 893-8232.

[Last modified April 4, 2006, 03:00:35]


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