Our Kids, the organization responsible for the care and safety of foster children in Miami-Dade and Monroe counties, has a new leader in place with an impressive resume.
But a void at the top was not the only problem afflicting the nonprofit.
A comprehensive examination — called a peer review — of Our Kids’ practices just conducted by the Department of Children & Families (DCF) lists a litany of ills.
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“I can’t rewrite the past, or people’s perception of the past, but what I can do is control what we do moving forward,” said George Sheldon, Our Kids’ CEO and president, whose previous job was managing the tumultuous child welfare system in Illinois.
In Florida’s patchwork social services world, groups like Our Kids contract with DCF to fulfill foster care needs in the state’s various geographic areas. Those nonprofits, in turn, ink subcontracts to provide actual services.
The report says Our Kids is having trouble getting along with the various components of the foster care world, including foster parents, judges who oversee the cases, and its subcontractors, which are called Full Case Management Agencies.
DCF’s review cites the perception that Our Kids is “directive rather than inclusive,” leaving out the subcontractors and others when making administrative decisions, causing managerial tension.
It says foster parents often aren’t given the full background — such as the full range of traumas experienced and the specific medical needs — of the child they are taking into their home.
A complaint from the judiciary was that Our Kids isn’t adequately overseeing the subcontractors to ensure they are doing “quality work.” When something goes wrong, sometimes tragically, finding out the reasons why can be difficult. The report cites many other problems, from inexperienced managers to a need for term limits on the Our Kids board to a suggestion that Our Kids supplement its website with information on how it is performing.
And while a shift toward kinship care — placing foster children with relatives instead of strangers — has helped the agency find more homes for abused and neglected kids, treatment for those who need professional attention remains a persistent problem, the report found.
A lack of therapeutic foster homes — those whose foster parents hold specialized expertise — may have been a critical factor in the death of 14-year-old Naika Venant.
Taking powerful prescribed medications, Naika cycled through 14 non-therapeutic homes before hanging herself with a homemade noose — while live-streaming it on Facebook.
She already had experienced a lifetime of trauma, including abandonment by her mother, and reported a sexual assault while in state care. She had trouble distinguishing the lines between abnormal and normal behavior.
Naika’s doctors diagnosed depression — for which they prescribed medications — along with obsessive compulsive disorder, panic attacks, post-traumatic stress disorder, and ADHD.
Ultimately, her premature death and the treatment she received leading up to it revealed a host of deficiencies within the foster care system.
Asked about the state of behavioral health services, Sheldon said kids shouldn’t be seen as “piecemeal.” More collaboration between the agencies that assess kids and more homes are needed to produce the right amount and type of treatment for kids in the system, he said.
Thirty-eight days before Naika’s suicide, another girl in state care took her own life. Lauryn Martin-Everett’s case received less attention than Naika’s because her death was not, in the view of DCF, the result of abuse or neglect — and because she hadn’t live-streamed it on the Internet.
Unlike the vast trove of records on Naika released to the Miami Herald in response to a public records petition, Lauryn’s movement between nine foster homes was covered in three pages.
Sheldon’s recent hire was well received by Our Kids’ board due to his considerable experience in child welfare services.
Sheldon was DCF’s secretary from 2008-11, making way for David Wilkins after the election of Gov. Rick Scott. In 2015, Sheldon was hired to head Illinois’ Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS).
His tenure there ended this summer in controversy. While with DCFS — serving a state that, like Florida, has seen several shocking deaths of young children on the child welfare radar — Sheldon faced ethics- and management-related inspector general investigations.
By maintaining ties to Florida affiliates with whom he held business relationships, Sheldon was found to have violated DCFS’s conflict of interest policy, according to an Illinois case document.
Sheldon was also criticized for hiring a confidential assistant whose duties included driving Sheldon, despite having a DUI-related license suspension — which Sheldon said he did not know about.
It was later found that the assistant billed DCFS for times when he didn’t work. Many of Sheldon’s troubles in Illinois were uncovered by the Chicago Tribune.
Sheldon also was criticized for sidestepping department policy by contracting a firm to produce public service announcements without consulting procurement and contracting staff first, according to the case document.
Denise Kane, one of the inspectors general who investigated Sheldon, said: “He’s a smart man. He’s a lawyer, and he’s worked for the Attorney General’s office. You can’t say you’re naive, when it comes to this level of ethical mismanagement. We can’t tolerate that kind of betrayal of public trust … especially if you’re in child welfare.”
Sheldon said he should have done some things differently back in Illinois, but now he’s going to tackle Miami-Dade and Monroe Counties’ child welfare systems head on.
Finding DCF’s review “balanced and fair,” Sheldon intends to use it as a road map for improving Our Kids.
He’s formed an assessment team in light of the review, and to gain a footing in the organization. Made up of people he trusts, he said, the team will conduct internal and external analyses, gathering data for Our Kids to use and spread.
Since “it’s important to walk in the shoes of the everyday case manager” he has already met with subcontractor leadership, he said. He added that Our Kids has to figure out how to partner with managers, so their jobs aren’t tougher than they need to be.
One such subcontractor, the Children’s Home Society of Florida, spoke on the matter in an email to the Herald.
“We are excited about the new leadership at Our Kids, and we are optimistic for the future as we work together to best serve children and families in Miami,” said Maggie Dante, CHS’ executive director.
Oren Wunderman, the CEO of another sub, Family Resource Center of South Florida, felt similarly.
“I think that we have a tremendous amount of talent and goodwill in this community, and more high level people are talking to each other now than ever before,” he said. “… if we continue to have this tradition of meeting and actively partnering in good will, everyone will benefit.”