Op-Ed

Kids in foster care aren’t getting the care they need. That’s why we’re suing DCF.

Some foster children in Florida have spent time in an almost unending series of foster homes.
Some foster children in Florida have spent time in an almost unending series of foster homes. FRAUSCHÜTZE / FLICKR CC

Florida’s foster care system is broken. In Miami-Dade and Monroe counties, where children are in the legal custody of the Florida Department of Children & Families (DCF), we found so much harm being done to foster children that nothing short of a lawsuit could fix it.

Imagine yourself in the shoes of a 16-year-old girl, “L.T.” During her four years in foster care, she was moved 25 times among foster homes, group facilities and institutions, only to return to her case manager’s office to sleep in a chair until another place would accept her.

Or “F.C.” He’s a 13-year old boy in foster care who was held in a lock-down psychiatric institution for months, even after its staff recommended he be released to a home in the community. But DCF didn’t move him, simply because they had nowhere else to place him. The psychiatric program he slept in could have been used for another child who needed intensive care.

DCF removed a 2-year-old child and her infant sibling from a home where domestic abuse had occurred and placed them in a group home with one live-in staff member and a rotating series of shift workers. Once again, DCF could not find them an appropriate family foster home, but wrote in its court report that it saw “no problem with this placement.” It’s hard to imagine a worse setting for a 5-month-old baby than a group home where up to a dozen other children are cared for in shifts.

Worse, extreme instability and a lack of therapeutic and mental-health supports likely were factors in the tragic suicides of two girls in foster care in the Southern region. It’s been reported that both girls were moved from place to place without appropriate therapeutic services before killing themselves.

This is unacceptable. Sadly, these stories are not isolated incidents. Records show that hundreds of children have had more than 10, or even 20 or more, moves. More than over 25 kids have been moved more than 80 times. DCF’s own reports stated that numerous foster children have not even received appropriate mental health.

Any parent can tell you that this is no way to treat a child. As local attorneys representing young people in DCF’s care, we have a legal and moral obligation to act. After years of empty promises, it’s clear that legal action was the only way to make sure that a system that’s supposed to protect vulnerable kids is no longer harming them.

The facts are clear: By the Florida DCF’s own reports, it has long known about the extreme shortage of foster homes and appropriate therapeutic services in Miami-Dade and Monroe counties. Yet it has failed to prevent children from being left adrift and at risk of harm as they bounce between numerous families, group homes and institutions while their needs go unmet. If DCF is being judged as these young peoples’ parents, then DCF would be guilty of child neglect itself. That’s why we joined with a national nonprofit, Children’s Rights, and the Baker McKenzie law firm to file a lawsuit to stop this mistreatment and begin to repair the systemic flaws in DCF.

There are many good people dedicated to caring for these children, such as the case managers and foster parents who sacrifice nearly everything on behalf of the children. We’re not trying to punish anyone; our lawsuit simply seeks to hold DCF accountable and lead to changes that will make the system safer and more accountable for the children in it.

Instead of contesting this lawsuit, we hope the DCF, whose leaders are appointed by our elected officials and paid by taxpayers, will join us in seeking solutions that will provide the housing, therapeutic and mental health support that young people need.

We all have an interest in protecting kids who, through no fault of their own, are separated from their families and depend on the government for their very survival. Florida’s parents, neighbors and communities will accept nothing less for them. We all must hold the government — and ourselves — accountable.

Bernard Perlmutter, Robert Latham and Stewart Cooke are local attorneys representing foster care children with special needs.

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