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Measures to improve Florida’s troubled foster care released

More lawyers and court-appointed guardians, more therapy, second medical opinions, and the security of long-term foster homes where caregivers treat kids “as we would our own children.”

Those are some of the items on the wish list of a state task force that studied the April death of a Broward foster child, and recommended a host of reforms for Florida’s chronically troubled foster care system.

But will they work? Not, children’s advocates say, if state child welfare administrators can’t fix the one thing that has hampered the work of perhaps a dozen previous child-welfare task forces: a perennial lack of money.

On Thursday, the Gabriel Myers Work Group released its final, 26-page report on failures of the state’s child-welfare system that were linked to the April 16 death of 7-year-old Gabriel, who hanged himself with a detachable shower cord in the bathroom of his Margate foster home.

Some of the work group’s recommendations require little more than the tweaking of internal rules and policies -- or better compliance with existing rules -- such as following state laws requiring informed consent from a parent or judge before giving a foster child powerful psychiatric drugs.

But a host of other recommendations will require an infusion of millions of taxpayer dollars -- at a time of shrinking state revenues and contracting budgets.

“This won’t be the first report or plan -- and certainly won’t be the last -- that runs into the reality of how much and where’s the money,” said Jack Levine, a longtime childen’s and family advocate in Tallahassee.

Added state Sen. Nan Rich, a Weston Democrat who is vice chair of the Senate’s Children & Families Committee: “You can’t fix this problem without more financial resources.... We still have a long way to go to protect children.”

Department of Children & Families Secretary George Sheldon commended the work group Thursday, saying members “held nothing back’’ in issuing a blueprint for reform.

“Now,” he said, “it’s incumbent on me to carry the torch both from an internal standpoint, in terms of changing our culture, and from the external standpoint of getting the resources necessary to do it.”

Gabriel’s death -- and the attention it received nationwide -- will help provide lawmakers with the sense of urgency needed to resolve issues that long have plagued the agency, Sheldon said. “If any good comes out of this -- if there will be a legacy for Gabriel -- it will be a legislative initiative, both substantively and dollar-wise,” he said.

Gabriel, who was born in Ohio, was taken in by the Department of Children & Families on June 29, 2008, after his mother was found slumped in her car surrounded by narcotics. In the next 10 months, Gabriel was moved four times between a relative and foster parents.

In the weeks following the youngster’s death, authorities acknowledged Gabriel had been given several mental-health drugs -- some linked to dangerous side-effects in children -- without required parental or judicial consent. Though Gabriel had been seen by therapists and a psychiatrist, DCF admitted the agency missed key “red flags’’ that his condition was becoming critical.

Sheldon appointed five members to the workgroup, which held six meetings throughout the state in an effort to identify measures that could improve the care of children like Gabriel.

Among the work groups key findings:

Ÿ DCF expects the work load to more than double -- from 761 calls in budget year 2008 to 2,000 in 2009 -- for a University of Florida program, called the Behavioral Health Network, that provides information on psychiatric drugs to parents, foster parents, court-appointed guardians and caseworkers for foster kids.

Ÿ Children with mental illnesses fare better when they receive psychological or behavioral therapy in addition to medication. Therapeutic services for foster children have remained stagnant in recent years along with state dollars for mental-health care.

Ÿ Court-appointed guardians-ad-litem should be reporting children’s wishes regarding medication to judges who oversee their time in foster care, the report said. But only about 6 out of 10 foster kids have access to a guardian, advocates say.

Ÿ ‘‘Any child who objects to the administration of medication, at any point in time, should be appointed counsel to directly represent his or her position,” the group wrote. Some advocates, the report added, insist that every child in foster care -- especially those taking psychotropic drugs -- should have a lawyer.

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