Lawmakers seek changes at foster group homes

Sen. Nancy Detert, a Venice Republican who has long worked on issues involving foster children, is seeking to reduce the use of group homes that employ workers in shifts rather than as live-in house-parents.

Detert this week filed a measure (SB 940) that would restrict the circumstances and lengths of time that children can stay in group homes employing shift workers, who typically work eight hours at a time. Each child’s plan would depend on his or her age and would be subject to approval by the assistant secretary for child welfare at the Florida Department of Children and Families.

“It is well documented that children residing long term in group homes with shift-based care is not in their best interest,” the bill says. “Not only is it developmentally inappropriate, it frequently creates lifelong behaviors requiring institutionalization and contributes to higher levels of involvement with the juvenile justice system and to poor educational outcomes.”

Under the bill, the youngest children would be targeted for the shortest stays in group homes that use shift workers.

Filed Tuesday, the measure is already controversial. Supporters of the changes say it’s bad for children to go to bed with one caretaker present and wake up to another. Industry groups say some children need more care than a family setting can provide.

Both sides went to Detert’s office this week, hoping to shape the bill before its first, as yet unscheduled, committee hearing.

“The bill’s still in the oven,” Detert said.

Shelley Katz, chief operating officer of the Children’s Home Society of Florida, wrote in an email that her organization hopes the bill language “is subject to further discussion.”

“We believe that children are best served by having a variety of placement options available, and that limiting those options in statute is not in the best interest of children,’’ Katz wrote.

Katz, who also chairs the Florida Coalition for Children, which represents both types of group homes, said that “many models … have demonstrated very positive outcomes for children.”

“You need to have a mix of services,” agreed Victoria Vangalis Zepp, the coalition’s director of government and community affairs. “You need to have a blend.”

But Christina Spudeas, executive director of the advocacy group Florida’s Children First, pointed to Detert’s 2013 “normalcy bill,” which lifted some restrictions on foster families and added quality standards for foster parents.

“Two years ago, the Legislature decided to measure quality in foster parenting,” Spudeas said. “We don’t want to know what the group homes are doing with our kids?”

Detert’s proposal comes after a report issued last month by the Legislature’s Office of Program Policy Analysis and Government Accountability, which found that roughly 11 percent of Florida children who are removed from their families are placed in group homes rather than with relatives, friends or foster families.

Group homes cost the state nearly $81.7 million for approximately 2,200 children in 2013-2014 --- more than $37,000 per child. In comparison, the state rate for foster families who care for children aged 13 to 17 is $527 per month, or $6,324 per year.

The OPPAGA study also found that 57 percent of Florida group homes use shift workers, who some children’s advocates said are less likely to develop positive relationships with the youngsters in their care.

“A family-based setting of whatever type is always going to be better for children than a shift-care model,” said Mike Watkins, chief executive officer of Big Bend Community Based Care. “The further away you get from a family setting, I think it’s bad for kids.”

But Watkins added that a full continuum of options is necessary.

Zepp, who grew up in foster care and lived in a group home, had a good experience. “I thrived there,” she said.

Detert’s bill was driven, in part, by members of the advocacy group Florida Youth SHINE, which represents youths who age out of foster care and is affiliated with Florida’s Children First.

Detert’s proposal comes as the Department of Children and Families has been holding talks with the Florida Coalition for Children. One work group, chaired by Ken Bender, executive director of Boys Town North Florida, is focused on group homes.

He said part of the work involves mapping out the types of group homes in the state and defining standards of care for them.

“Her legislation is a great conversation starter,” Bender said of Detert’s bill. “(But) I think it’s too early, this session, to move this legislation through, because we have this work group started and working.”

Bender, whose facility uses a house-parent model, said he found SB 940 too restrictive.

“It only addresses one part of the problem,” he said. “I think we have more opportunity to look at the other side, where we can move people to standards rather than restricting some of the placement options and authority that is initially set forth in this legislation.”