Setting the record straight on Florida's community-based care system

October 27, 2013 

In an Oct. 2 opinion column in the Herald, "Time to reform Florida DCF at every level," attorney Neal Roth criticizes the state of Florida's child welfare system and calls for reform. While our child welfare system continues to face challenges, Roth's assertions are way off base and show his lack of understanding of Florida's system.

His comments brought to mind the adage, "A text out of context is a pretext".

The undisputed fact is Florida's system has gone from worst to first, in large part because of our transition to a community-based care system and the partnership between the Department of Children and Families and the community-based care agencies and providers.

Ten years ago Roth's assertions may have been on point, but his Oct. 2 column appears to intentionally overlook the state of our child welfare system today and instead focuses on isolated incidents as representative of the overall system.

While no failings of the system are acceptable when it comes to children in our care, it is always important to evaluate them with the right perspective, and with all of the facts -- something that Mr. Roth's column occasionally neglects or gets wrong.

Florida's community-based care model has succeeded in turning the state's child welfare system from one of the worst in the country to one of the best. According to a 2012 report, Right for Kids Rankings, Florida ranks fourth in the nation for its child welfare system and outcomes, and is the only "big five" state to reach the top ten.

As a result, Florida was the first state granted a waiver of how its federal child welfare funds can be spent, further enhancing the partnership between state government and the network of local nonprofits to innovate and solve problems.

The nonprofit organizations the Department of Children and Families selects to serve as community-based care lead agencies have grown from small start-ups to mature agencies responsible for thousands of lives, millions of state funds and a wide array of services. Each has succeeded by nurturing its own local ecosystem of foster parents, service providers and professional staff tailored to meet the unique needs of their community.

This approach has been a bargain for Florida taxpayers. The foster care system today receives roughly the same amount as it did during the transition seven years ago. Working together, DCF and local agencies effectively utilize resources to safely reunite children, while preventing entry/re-entry into foster care. The savings are continuously re-invested into local systems of care.

Reinvesting in the system of care is the agencies No. 1 priority. Any state funds earmarked for the individual community-based care lead agencies (CBC's) must be spent on child welfare services. In fact, Florida law requires that 98 percent of their funds must be used for direct services.

For far too long, some trial attorneys have attempted to make baseless claims like this against CBC and provider agencies. They are exploiting the very statute that created the community-based care system because it took child welfare services and activities out from under the protection of sovereign immunity, creating an unheard of opportunity for these trial attorneys to target and sue the state's child welfare agencies.

In fact, to call the state's community-based care agencies "big business" is nothing short of hypocrisy by Mr. Roth. The real big business is the self-serving trial attorneys targeting child welfare providers for baseless lawsuits despite the courts repeatedly finding no evidence of negligence on the part of the agencies.

Florida's community-based care system is one of the most cost-effective models for providing child welfare services in the country. Its efficiencies have resulted in increased adoptions and fewer children in care or at risk as a result of successful prevention and intervention programs.

It's unfortunate that when these lawyers can't make their case in the courtroom they have to resort to false claims and baseless assertions in an attempt to influence the court of public opinion.

The columnist and I do agree, however, that there is nothing more important than protecting and providing for our most vulnerable population, Florida's abused, abandoned and neglected children.

Kurt Kelly, is a former member of the Florida House of Representatives and currently serves as the chief executive officer and president of the Florida Coalition for Children. The Tallahassee-based nonprofit coalition advocates for Florida's abused and neglected children and supports the agencies and individuals who work on their behalf.

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