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Foster care laws attacked
A child advocate sues to have state foster care statutes declared unconstitutional.
By MELANIE AVE, Times Staff Writer
Published January 26, 2008
TAMPA - Jacob Peters was placed in foster care at age 3 after his parents separated and his mother's boyfriend was accused of sexual molestation.
Fourteen years and 45 different foster placements later, he's still there.
A well-known child advocate now wants the state to pay for what she says have been numerous wrongs against 17-year-old "Jacob Peters," a pseudonym he is called in a lawsuit filed recently in Hillsborough Circuit Court.
Tallahassee attorney Karen Gievers filed the suit against the Florida Department of Children and Families and its nonprofit contractor Hillsborough Kids, saying both entities deprived him of his rights and robbed him of his childhood.
The suit calls for the state's foster care statutes to be declared unconstitutional. It also asks for an immediate halt to children being placed with the agency until the rights and safety of the children in its current care are protected.
Calling the suit a full frontal assault on Florida's foster care system, Gievers is seeking class-action status to represent all Hillsborough children taken from their families.
The suit suggests that Jacob's case is not isolated.
Of the 2,900 children in the care of Hillsborough Kids, seven have been in the system for more than 15 years; 60 of them more than 10 years, the suit says.
"Foster care by its definition is temporary, short term," said Gievers, a frequent DCF critic who often represents abused children. "It's not supposed to exceed 12 months. The system is still not being operated correctly for the sake of the children."
Gievers and the state have the same goals for the system, said George Sheldon, assistant secretary for the Department of Children and Families.
The two sides are just approaching it differently, he said.
"What she's asking is to shut the system down. That's not a realistic response," he said. "Does the system need improvement, yes? Is the system unconstitutional? I don't think so."
Too many kids have too many replacements, and kids who are aging out of the system need to be better prepared for life on their own, he said. "I think she raises some fair concerns. I think the real issue is how do we make the system better."
In Jacob's case, Gievers said the state failed to do all it could to find adoptive parents for the boy after his own parents' rights were terminated.
She said his placement in foster homes failed, one after the other, because workers failed to properly evaluate the homes and match him appropriately.
In his 14 years in foster care, the boy was bounced among 45 different foster homes and treatment facilities, was prescribed at least 14 different psychiatric drugs and involuntarily committed at least 16 times for dangerous and violent acts, the suit says.
A timeline of his foster care placements show numerous instances in which foster parents asked for him to be removed after he acted out sexually, wet the bed, attempted suicide and threw tantrums.
Foster parent Kara Dollar said the boy stayed with her family for a short time in 2001, but she and her husband asked that he be removed. "We have children of our own," said Dollar, who no longer lives in Florida. "He was a danger to them."
For the last year and half, the suit says the boy has been living at Tampa Bay Academy, a treatment facility for troubled youth.
"His life is a stack of paperwork recording which placement he is at," Gievers said. "This child has been a department child, a child of the bureaucracy. It's the state that has not parented him properly."
Hillsborough Kids executive director Jeff Rainey said he could not comment on a specific case.
"We believe in permanency for children in the best possible setting to meet their needs," Rainey said. "Unfortunately, we have children in our care who suffer from serious chronic physical, emotional and mental illness and simply cannot be maintained in the levels of care available to us."
The suit marks the fourth that Gievers has brought against the state seeking systemic change to the system.
She said children are often removed from their homes through no fault of their own, instead of the state removing - or arresting - abusive parents.
In 1990, Gievers filed suit on behalf of six children who had been in state custody for up to 10 years. It was settled in 1995 after state leaders agreed to move children more quickly into permanent homes.
Gievers said she was made aware of the Hillsborough boy's situation by his attorney ad litem, one of the few constants in his life.
She said the state has not allowed him to have contact with two sisters, one of whom was adopted and the other who remains with their biological father.
She said the boy suffers from reactive attachment disorder, and his future does not look good.
"We still have hope," Gievers said. "Where there's life, there's hope."