A Miami-Dade judge is ordering extra staffing at foster group homes after an employee was videotaped directing two boys to brawl in a vicious “cockfight.”
Circuit Judge Michael Hanzman — ripping the state’s maze of contracted private companies that are supposed to care for troubled children — called supervision at state-contracted foster group homes nothing more than “shift babysitters.”
“While these ‘caregivers’ are supposedly trained to diffuse any violence, no ‘backup’ adult is ever present,” Hanzman wrote in an order discussed at a hearing Wednesday in Miami-Dade dependency court.
The judge’s order casts more scrutiny on Florida’s Department of Children and Families and the private companies outsourced to care for children under state care. But whether foster group homes will comply with Hanzman’s order remains up in the air. In court on Wednesday, a DCF attorney objected while two private companies asked for more time to research the mandate.
Another hearing will be held on Feb. 1.
Hanzman also asked lawyers to explain whether DCF even had the legal authority to contract, and subcontract, with so many different private agencies.
“Having four or more separate ‘private’ agencies feed at the public trough is wasteful, results in disparate care and treatment, and deprives children and families of needed services,” Hanzman wrote. “It also allows for a lack of accountability, with each ‘entity’ pointing the finger at one another when the ball is dropped.”
The judge’s long-running frustration with DCF boiled over last week when video surfaced of an employee at a group home “encouraging and provoking” two 11-year-old boys to fight as other children cheered them on. One of the boys, identified only as J.W., was then committed to Jackson Memorial Hospital against his will for a psychiatric evaluation — another move that drew the ire of the judge.
The episode surfaced when J.W. missed a court date in which he and his siblings were to receive Christmas gifts. Hanzman ordered the boy released, a move the hospital initially refused to do, the judge wrote in his order released late Tuesday.
J.W., whose parents have lost their rights to care for him, was “calm and pleasant, as usual,” when finally brought to a hearing. “He has never demonstrated any violent tendencies or shown signs of emotional instability,” Hanzman wrote. “He is a smart, compassionate yet sad child.”
The unidentified employee of the group home, operated by Children’s Home Society of Florida, has since been fired. The two boys were moved from the group home. It took several weeks, but DCF eventually reported the suspected child abuse to police — another point of anger from the judge.
At an emergency hearing last week, Hanzman also ripped into DCF and Our Kids of Miami-Dade, which is contracted by the state to oversee foster care and hired CHS to run 11 group homes in this county. Maggie Dante, the local executive director of CHS, testified that only one staffer is on duty at any given time at the foster group homes.
“This one particular staffer is not a reflection of the work we do every day with these children,” Dante told the judge last week.
Hanzman ordered that two staffers must now be required to be in every group home that has children in state care. While DCF did not respond in court, a spokeswoman told the Miami Herald that Florida law “authorizes lead agencies to subcontract” services.
Also on Wednesday, Hanzman declined to allow parents who have lost their rights to children in CHS group homes to be a party to the legal proceedings.