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Study: Foster care rescue an overused tactic

Citrus and Hernando counties are among those cited as having high rates of child removal and of repeat abuse.

By MELANIE AVE and ELENA LESLEY
Published July 19, 2006


Foster care panic has seized Florida and is ripping too many youngsters needlessly from their families, a private child advocacy group said Tuesday.

Removing children from their homes and placing them in foster care often does little to improve their safety, the National Coalition for Child Protection Reform said in a new study.

Florida's "take the child and run approach" removes children from the home at a rate 35 percent higher than the national average when allegations of neglect or abuse surface.

Yet, in counties with high child removal rates, such as Citrus and Hernando, children have higher rates of repeat abuse and often return to the foster care system.

Child welfare workers may worry that they will get blamed if something happens to a child who is left with a family when there are allegations of neglect or abuse, the coalition said. Highly publicized cases such as Rilya Wilson, who disappeared from her Miami foster home, have fueled this approach, the coalition said.

"They're erring on the side of caution for themselves, not the child," said Richard Wexler, coalition executive director. "It is the path of least resistance."

The Alexandria, Va., organization said the number of Florida children removed from their homes hit a record in 2005: more than 22,000, compared with 13,980 in 1998.

The organization, a persistent critics of the state's child welfare system, analyzed Department of Children and Families data on children taken from their homes over a one-year period in 14 geographic areas.

District 13, which includes Citrus and Hernando counties, had the highest proportional rate of removal in Florida, with 2,241 kids taken from homes. Its rate was more than twice the state average, or about 80 children removed for every 1,000, compared with the state's 36.

The coalition gave the Suncoast Region that includes Pinellas, Pasco and Hillsborough counties a ranking of sixth, with 4,418 removed, or 46 for every 1,000 children.

Yet District 13 ranked second statewide in the number of children who return to the foster care system and fifth for repeat abuse. The Suncoast Region ranked sixth for both repeat abuse and foster care recidivism.

DCF officials disputed the findings.

"The often difficult decision on whether to remove a child from a home is based on the best possible information available, not out of 'panic,' as the report suggests," agency spokesman Tim Bottcher said in a written statement. "Contrary to the report, the vast majority of child abuse investigations do not result in removals."

Bottcher said the number of children removed from their homes has declined by more than 15 percent over the last four years when population growth is considered.

Wexler described District 13's rate of removal as "crazy," saying it is "among the very worst places in the state to be in foster care, although it has begun to turn around."

The old policy in District 13 was to remove kids first and ask questions later, said Cynthia Schuler, chief executive officer of Kids Central Inc., which began overseeing foster care through a contract with the state two years ago.

Schuler said investigators separated children from their families unnecessarily. She said around 19 percent of cases in District 13 should not have been opened.

Over the last couple of months, Kids Central has started focusing more on programs that can keep children in their homes.

"If you work with the kids in their homes," Schuler said, "you're better able to stabilize the whole situation."

The problem with removing children from the home, Wexler said, is they are separated from everyone who loves them, which causes serious emotional trauma. They also are at risk of being abused in a foster home.

Children should be removed only when "you're darn sure that leaving that child is dangerous," he said.

But Wexler said just shrinking the number of children removed doesn't fix the problem. "There's a right way and wrong way to reduce the needless removal of children," he said.

He said if one parent is an alcoholic, the parent should be removed and treated. He said if a family's housing is substandard, help the family secure proper housing.

Wexler said DCF and the private agencies that oversee the protection of neglected and abused children statewide need to establish proven intervention programs to help remain healthy and intact.

Then, he said, "workers would have more time to find the children in real danger who really must be taken from their parents."

Melanie Ave can be reached at (727) 893-8813 or mave@sptimes.com.

[Last modified July 19, 2006, 05:41:51]


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