Florida's Children First

Howard M. Talenfeld, Esq. – President


Howard Talenfeld is one of America’s leading children’s rights, injury, and child disability attorneys representing the needs of abused and neglected children, especially in cases of foster child abuse, child sexual abuse, child rape, and other harm and abuse of children in the child welfare system. His work has resulted in multimillion dollar damage awards and has created systemic change in how government agencies and private institutions care for those vulnerable individuals.

Since the 1980s, Howard has focused his practice exclusively on protecting the rights of vulnerable individuals in civil rights cases, personal injury cases and systemic reform litigation. He has litigated cases that have resulted in multimillion dollar settlements and jury verdicts that changed how governmental and private institutions care for children and the elderly.

Among his wins, Howard prevailed against New York City and the Archdiocese of Brooklyn, which together paid more than $27 million in the case of Judith Leekin. The former foster mother ran what the courts called a “house of horrors” that imprisoned, abused and starved 10 disabled foster children.

Employing creative legal approaches, he helped establish funding for child welfare programs and employ a federal civil rights damage statute to recover a damage awards in excess of Florida’s sovereign immunity limits. In Florida, Talenfeld is responsible for many million dollar victories in federal civil rights and negligence claims against Florida Department of Children and Families’ employees and agencies. These also have resulted in landmark decisional law protecting the rights of children and disabled persons.

Howard began his career involving at-risk children, seniors and the developmentally disabled in the 1980s and 1990s, when he represented the state of Florida in its major class-action lawsuits dealing with the foster care system, children’s mental health system, juvenile justice system, state psychiatric hospitals and the provision of Medicaid services to the developmentally disabled, among others.

Nationally, he pioneered defending these cases by advocating for the improvement and reform of human service systems, while protecting states’ rights and avoiding federal over-sight. In Florida, he also represented governors, secretaries of state, state agencies, Florida’s Insurance Commissioner, the Florida Legislature and Florida’s Auditor General in civil rights cases in federal and state court.

Howard soon took his knowledge and skill in defending state agencies to help Florida’s at-risk populations, and his successes in trial courts, appellate courts and negotiations formed the foundation of creative legal approaches that have delivered extraordinary results.

In 1998, he served as lead counsel in the Broward County foster care class action, Ward v. Kearney. The resulting settlement agreement greatly improved child welfare practice and more than tripled the District 10 budget for its child welfare system from $38 million to more than $100 million.

In 1999, he achieved another major victory, this time for the Florida’s developmentally disabled population in Baumstein v. Sunrise Community, Inc., 738 So. 2d 420, (Fla. 3DCA 1999). The case established the existence of a private cause of action for damages for the violation of Florida’s Bill of Rights for the developmentally disabled.

He also was the first attorney in Florida to utilize 42 USC § 1983, the federal civil rights damage statute, to recover a damage award in excess of Florida’s sovereign immunity limit of $100,000 on behalf of a foster child. In the 2002 case, Roe v. Florida Department of Children & Family Services, 176 F. Supp. 2d 1310 (S.D. Fla. 2001), Talenfeld negotiated a landmark $5 million settlement and focused the nation’s attention on the case in an episode of ABC’s 20/20.

Throughout his career, Howard has been a forceful advocate for change. He has argued for systemic reform litigation before many state and national groups, including the U.S. Congress, the National Association of State Mental Health Lawyers, the American Public Welfare Association and many Florida legislative committees. In 1996, he was appointed to the Board of Directors of the Youth Law Center, a national children’s advocacy group. He has helped organizations develop into a viable entity that assist at-risk youth and teens.

In 2013, he co-chaired Citizens for Broward Children, the political action committee that successfully advocated for the permanent reauthorization in November of the Broward County Children’s Services Council. He also was on the original steering committee for the initiative, which provides $62 million a year in funding for critical children’s services in Broward County.

Howard has been equally as effective in the state capital. He helped write the law that required mandatory reporting of child-on-child sexual abuse and rape in community facilities. He also advocated in 2014 for and helped encourage passage and the governor’s signature on House Bill 561 (§ 39.01305/ Appointment of an Attorney for a Dependent Child with Certain Special Needs). The new law ensures children who are victims of sexual abuse, sexual trafficking, are on psychotropic medications, or have been committed to a residential treatment facility, have attorneys representing them in all legal or administrative proceedings. Previously, attorneys were not required, and the best interests of such children were not assured.

Howard’s advocacy dates back almost three decades. He was instrumental in passage of such landmark legislation as the Foster Children Bill of Rights, Florida’s pilot project on representation of foster children in Dependency Court, and Florida’s interagency education bill for foster children. He also is founded President of Florida’s Children First, Florida’s premier child advocacy organization.

Professionally, Howard is a member of the American Bar Association, the Association of Trial Lawyers of America, and the National Association of Council for Children. He previously chaired the Litigation/Class Action Committee and was a representative for the State of Florida to the National Association of Mental Health Attorneys (1993). He has received numerous awards, including Lifestyle Media Group’s “Leader in Law” in 2014. He has been recognized as a Top Lawyer in the South Florida Legal Guide and he was named the Daily Business Review’s Most Effective Lawyer in the Public Interest category in 2013.

Additionally, he was selected by the South Florida Business Journal as a Key Partners Awards honoree in 2012 and he received The Florida Bar President’s 2006 Pro Bono Service Award for the 17th Judicial Circuit in and for Broward County, Florida. Talenfeld is an AV Preeminent® Top Rated Lawyer by Martindale-Hubbell™ and has been named in Florida Super Lawyers Magazine since 2006.

Among other memberships, Howard chairs the Broward Days Children’s Issues Team (2000-present), was a Director of Florida’s Voice of the Mentally Retarded and sat on the Steering Committee for Citizens for Broward’s Children in 2000. He was also former Director with the Youth Law Center in San Francisco, California. Among civic organizations, he was former President and Director of the Cypress Head Club Inc.; and was on the City of Parkland Board of Adjustment and Planning and Zoning Board, which he chaired for many years. He served on the Board of Trustees and chaired the Campaign Committee of Temple Kol Tikvah, was a Board Member of Hurricane Relief for Miami Foster Kids Inc., served as a Big Brother, and has coached various sports teams, including soccer, baseball and softball.

Howard received his bachelors of business administration degree from University of Miami School of Business, and his Juris Doctorate from University of Miami School of Law, cum laude.

Letter from the president of Florida’s Children First

Gerald Reiss, CPA – Treasurer

Jerry ReissGerald Reiss (Jerry) is currently a CPA for Goldstein Schechter Koch in Hollywood, Florida. He joined the firm as a Shareholder in 1988. His areas of practice include general tax, business and financial consulting. He serves professional practices including attorneys, physicians, engineers, architects, real estate developers and contractors.

Jerry earned a Bachelor’s degree in economics and a Master of Business Administration from Cornell University. He became a Missouri CPA in December 1967 and a Florida CPA in June 1978. He was a recipient of the E.W. Sells Award for placing in the nation’s top 15 scores for the May 1966 CPA examination. From 1972 to 1976, he served as Director of Revenue for the State of Missouri. He has also been a tax columnist for the Sun-Sentinel and is a frequent speaker and writer on various topics.

Gloria W. Fletcher, Esq. – In Memoriam

Gloria Fletcher Gloria Fletcher is in private practice in Gainesville Florida. Throughout her legal career, Gloria has taken a special interest in children’s issues. Currently, she is serving on the ABA Bar youth Empowerment Project, Florida Advisory Committee. Long active in her local community, she is a Director of Alarion Bank; is serving her second Gubernatorial appointment on the Board of Governors for the Citizens Property Insurance Corporation, is a graduate of Leadership Gainesville, past Chairperson of Alachua County Juvenile Justice Committee and the Florida Council on Crime & Delinquency:. In 1999, Gloria received the Distinguished Service Award from the Florida Council on Crime & Delinquency.

Trauma: What Child Welfare Attorneys Should Know

Each year, over 45 million children in the United States are affected by violence, crime, abuse, or psychological trauma.1 Trauma exposure can significantly interfere with the way children’s brains assess threat, which in turn can affect how they respond to stress. The negative impact of trauma exposure is particularly relevant for children and families in the child welfare system, as the majority of child welfare-involved clients have experienced multiple traumas, including abuse, neglect, and exposure to domestic violence. By understanding the impact of trauma on youth and families, and incorporating trauma-informed skills into legal advocacy, attorneys representing children or parents in child welfare cases can improve outcomes for their clients.


Trauma: What Child Welfare Attorneys Should Know

Petition to U.S. Supreme Court on Due Process Rights of Parents.

Florida’s Children First is proud to have been the lead party in a friend of the court brief in the U.S.Supreme Court asserting that all parents should have a due process right to be heard in a child welfare case that could result in a court determining that the child had no parent.  In this case the child’s biological father who was named on the birth certificate and was present at his birth, was excluded from dependency proceedings because the child’s mother was married to a man she hadn’t seen in years.  The mother and her husband both supported the biological father’s effort to be recognized as the father.  FCF asserts that the child’s best interest is not promoted when the parent is cut out of proceedings without due process.

M.L’s Petition for Writ of Ceriorari

Friend of the Court brief by Florida’s Children First and other national and state advocacy organizations.

State investigation cites multiple failures in death of Largo child

It was sweltering in the bedroom of the Largo mobile home the day a child welfare case manager visited in July.

Yet she left 8-month-old William Hendrickson IV there with no air-conditioning and in the care of an erratic father who had been refusing to take his medication, a newly released state investigation found.

There was still time to save the child when a call was made to the Florida Abuse Hotline later that day. But the hotline operator mistakenly marked the call as a non-priority case. It wasn’t until the next morning that child protective investigators arrived.

By then, the infant was gray and not breathing and his 2-year-old sister was severely dehydrated

A state investigation into the death of the infant found multiple failures on the part of the child welfare system that left the boy in a room where police investigating the death recorded temperatures of 109 degrees. They include:

• The case manager who visited the home one day before the boy’s death failed to take necessary action.

• The abuse hotline operator failed to code an abuse report as “immediate,” which would have sent investigators to the home within four hours.

• The case manager and her supervisor failed on several occasions to escalate the case to the State Attorney’s Office when it was clear their safety plan had broken down.

Hendrickson and his two-year-old sister had been under the watch of a case manager since January as a result of ongoing drug use and domestic violence between father William Hendrickson III and the children’s mother, Elizabeth Rutenbeck.

In an effort to keep the family together, the couple were receiving in-homes services to improve their parenting. That safety plan included random drug testing and three “surprise” visits a week to the home, the highest level of supervision normally conducted.

During the case manager’s July 25 visit, the two-year-old girl’s hair was soaked with sweat and when she asked for milk, the father said he did not have any because that was normally handled by the mother. She had been jailed on a misdemeanor battery charge four days earlier after a clash with the children’s grandmother.

Those were clear warning signs that the children were in danger, said Christina Spudeas, executive director of Florida’s Children First, a statewide advocacy organization focused on children’s rights.

“It’s real simple,” said Spudeas. “The baby is in danger; get him out.”

The case manager should have stayed at the home until the father moved the children out of his bedroom to a cooler place in the house, Spudeas said. If he had refused, then she should have called police.

The father’s parents were living in the mobile home, too. But relations between them and their son were strained and their requests that he move his children to another room or at least keep his door open were ignored.

The jailing of the mother was another missed red flag, according to the state investigation. She had been regarded as the more protective parent but now the two children were only in the care of the father, who had stopped cooperating with child welfare workers. While she was there, he refused an offer of a window air-conditioner unit for his bedroom.

This was enough grounds for the case manager or her supervisor to call the State Attorney’s Office, the report states. It has a 24-hour on-call attorney who could have scheduled an emergency shelter hearing to have the children removed.

The case manager , who was not identified in the report, worked for Directions for Living, a Pinellas nonprofit contracted by the county’s lead child welfare agency, Eckerd Kids. Officials from Directions declined to answer questions on the case or comment on whether the case manager or her supervisor were subject to any discipline.

Eckerd Kids spokesman Elliott Wiser said his agency is working with law enforcement and its partners — including Directions — to “make adjustments to the system of care to best serve families and children in need.”

“This is a sad and unfortunate incident and we grieve with the entire Tampa Bay community,” Wiser said.

A Largo police officer also visited the home the day before the boy died. He was called by the boy’s grandparents and arrived at noon, about an hour after the case manager.

The report states he did not complete a police report or make a report to the child abuse hotline. He did, however, call the case manager’s supervisor to make her aware of the grandparents’ concerns.

That was the appropriate action for an ongoing case, said Lt. Randall Chaney of Largo Police Department’s Office of Professional Standards.

The death of the child resulted in the arrest of William Hendrickson III, 26, on charges of aggravated manslaughter. He was still in jail Monday.

Rutenbeck, 24, was released Aug. 11 on a $500 bond. The 2-year-old girl is with relatives.

State law keeps the identity of callers to the state’s abuse hotline confidential so its unclear who made the call the afternoon before the infant was found dead.

It was the fourth call to the state’s abuse hotline over the past year about the family.

The Florida Department of Children and Families, which runs the abuse hotline, reviewed the call and determined that the operator “primarily focused on the details of the specific incident that was being reported.”

The operator received additional training regarding the incorrect priority placed on the call. A review of the operator’s other recent calls also was conducted.

DCF officials noted that the report was referred to child protective investigators within the Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office by abut 6 p.m. the day before the child died. It was reviewed by three employees there and also a Eckerd Community Alternatives case manager.

“I remain committed to identifying every opportunity to improve the services provided to vulnerable children and their families in Florida,” said DCF Secretary Mike Carroll. “There is also an ongoing criminal investigation and we will assist in any way possible.”

Contact Christopher O’Donnell at codonnell@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3446. Follow @codonnell_Times.

State investigation cites multiple failures in death of Largo child 09/25/17 [Last modified: Tuesday, September 26, 2017 12:55am] 
Photo reprints | Article reprints



Hillsborough loses big as state fails to divide child welfare money by need

Lauren Breto, caseworker, fits a shirt on a child during a visit to the Raising Hope clothing and supplies pantry at The Family Place in Tampa on Wednesday. The pantry provides emergency and comfort items for kids entering the foster care system. 

[CHARLIE KAIJO | Times]If Florida’s overburdened child welfare system has an epicenter, it’s Hillsborough County.

An average of 3,600 children were in foster care in the county during 2016, the most in Florida. Hillsborough also has among the highest number of child abuse investigations and removal rates.

Yet the county’s lead child welfare agency is short-changed almost $6 million in state funds this year while roughly $44 million goes to other agencies across Florida to look after foster children they do not have, state records show.

The inequity is the result of a funding formula that child welfare insiders admit is a little screwy.

Lead care agencies in 20 judicial circuits across Florida get money based on the number of foster children and child abuse investigations, among other factors. But a “hold harmless” rule introduced in 2015 means the state cannot reduce an agency below its 2015 funding level even when it is serving fewer foster kids.

The rule was meant as a stopgap measure but stayed in place. As the foster child population has shifted, it has created glaring disparities and led to fears that there is less help for children and parents in some parts of Florida than in others.

The biggest winner is Our Kids, the lead care agency for Miami-Dade and Monroe counties. This year, it will receive $73 million in funding, almost $20 million more than it would without the hold-harmless rule.

Hillsborough’s $6 million “shortfall” makes it the biggest loser. Pinellas and Pasco counties, which make up the Sixth Judicial Circuit, will also miss out on an extra $700,000 this year.

Circuits like Hillsborough, which has seen an influx of foster care cases since 2015, have a tougher time being able to hire enough case managers to keep caseloads manageable. That matters since they and their supervisors make critical decisions about whether a child is safe in a home.

Districts that lose out under the formula also have fewer dollars to pay for therapy and other help for foster children or to go toward counseling to help parents get past drug abuse and other issues so they can be reunited with their children.

“It’s frustrating,” said Lorita Shirley, chief of community based care for Eckerd Kids, the lead agency in Hillsborough. “No one would argue that any child involved in child welfare should have equal access to services no matter where you live.”

The funding inequity has become starker over the past couple of years as the opioid crisis has disproportionately affected circuits along the Gulf Coast.

In the 12th Judicial Circuit, which covers Sarasota, Manatee and parts of DeSoto counties, almost 400 children were removed from their homes in 2013. That number more than doubled to 880 by 2015, coinciding with a period during which Manatee County led the state in opioid deaths per capita.

Some of those children coming into state care were traumatized by seeing a parent overdose, said Brena Slater, vice president of community based care for the Sarasota YMCA’s Safe Coalition.

The hold-harmless rule meant her agency missed out on an extra $2.7 million this year.

“That trauma is momentous. Our resources have been strained and we have made it a priority to advocate for additional funding,” Slater said. “We want to make sure we not only have adequate resources to allow us to provide all the services to children in our care but that we also have additional funding for when there are spikes of kids coming into care, like as a result of the opioid crisis.”

Before child welfare was privatized, the Florida Department of Children and Families was able to reallocate dollars between different circuits as needs changed. But the shift to DCF contracting with non-profits like Eckerd Kids to serve as community-based care agencies made it more difficult to move resources around.

Indeed it was the child welfare agencies that three years ago lobbied for the hold-harmless rule, said State Rep. Jason Brodeur, R-Sanford, who serves on the Appropriations Committee.

“They indicated it would be difficult for them to operate if their funding levels were revamped every year,” he said. “The thought was that it would provide some certainty to their business model.”

Overall, funding for child welfare has been criticized by groups like TaxWatch as being inadequate. The funding anomaly means what money is provided is not distributed according to need.

To address the shortfalls, DCF awards 80 percent of additional funding approved since 2015 only to circuits that lose out under the formula.

Still, that “new funding” totals only about $19 million or about 3 percent of the overall $645 million state pot for agencies.

“The allocation of child welfare funds to the [community-based care agencies] is specifically laid out in state law and DCF follows those formulas as directed,” said department Secretary Mike Carroll in an email to the Tampa Bay Times.

The Florida Coalition, a statewide association that represents the agencies, is in discussions with DCF about how to fix the problem, said Kurt Kelly, a former state lawmaker who is the coalition’s chief executive officer.

But that may not be easy. Agreement on what is a fair funding formula has proven difficult and agencies that gain under the current system may oppose any change.

“We are looking for consistency and we are having a great conversation with [DCF] right now,” Kelly said. “We need flexibility to be able to move the funds where they’re needed.”

The complex nature of child welfare adds to the problem facing lawmakers. The number of children in care reflects not only the level of need but how quickly agencies reunite children with parents or move ahead with adoptions. Also, some agencies spend more on social services to prevent children from being removed in the first place. Under the current formula they would not get extra funding.

“It does feel like the formula doesn’t incentivize the best work,” said Christina Spudeas, executive director of Florida’s Children First, a statewide advocacy organization focused on children’s rights.

State Sen. Kellie Stargel, R-Lakeland, who serves on the Florida Senate’s Children, Families and Elder Affairs Committee, said funding for Hillsborough is slowly catching up through the new funding.

But it may be time for lawmakers to take a look at the formula.

“If we’re not doing it fair, we’ll fix it to make it more fair,” she said. “I want to make sure we have the proper funding spread across the state.”

Contact Christopher O’Donnell at codonnell@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3446. Follow @codonnell_Times.


Original Article

Florida’s first responders to child abuse overwhelmed, inexperienced

A dozen former and current Florida Department of Children and Families child-protective investigators in Palm Beach County tell The Post and its news partner WPTV NewsChannel 5 that an inundation of paperwork, an ever-expanding job description and a ballooning number of cases have led to what some are calling a “mass exodus” of investigators statewide.

The first people the state dispatches to the homes of potentially abused and neglected children in Palm Beach County are overworked and in some cases cutting corners, data show.

A dozen former and current Florida Department of Children and Families child-protective investigators in Palm Beach County tell The Post and its news partner WPTV NewsChannel 5 that an inundation of paperwork, an ever-expanding job description and a ballooning number of cases have led to what some are calling a “mass exodus” of investigators statewide.

DCF casework by the numbers: An inside look

The employees The Post and Contact 5 investigators spoke with asked not to be identified for fear of losing their jobs or facing retaliation.

At one time or another in 2016, nearly every investigator in Palm Beach County juggled more cases than state policy recommends they should, an analysis of data provided by the state shows. In fact, some investigators handled more than double the recommended caseload — 15 — at one point in 2016, data shows.

Mike Carroll

In a telephone interview with The Post and WPTV, Department Secretary Mike Carroll said child-protective investigators have the most critical function in the state’s child welfare system. That job, though, is an entry-level position with a starting salary of $35,640.07 as of April 17, though there are opportunities for raises, a department spokeswoman said. The only specific qualification to apply is a bachelor’s degree.

Those who have done the job told The Post and WPTV the lengthy job description can feel impossible.

“When you have a caseload of 20-25-30-35, you are bound to not just fail, but the families you are charged with overseeing and helping are going to fail,” said a former investigator. “Something has to change.”

‘A 24/7 job’

High caseloads lead to resignations. It’s a fact cited in DCF’s annual report and studied by the Child Welfare League of America.

The state’s department considers 15 open cases the maximum any one investigator should be assigned. For each allegation of abuse or neglect, an investigator is required to look into the claims by interviewing numerous people — all within 60 days of receiving the case. Cases are assigned — when possible — based on proximity to an investigator’s home or specialty.

An analysis of state data shows it was common for an investigator in Palm Beach County to manage between 15 and 20 cases a day last year.

Some handled significantly more.

In fact, a fifth of the county’s investigators carried more than double the state’s caseload limit at one time last year. Two investigators were assigned as many as 38.

A review of data provided by the state indicates high caseloads aren’t due to a particularly busy day or two. During nearly half of last year’s workdays, the county’s caseload average exceeded the recommended 15 cases per investigator.

Employees interviewed pointed to the Abuse Hotline’s reluctance to throw out a complaint for the constant stream of new cases. The hotline takes calls, faxes and online submissions 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

“We can’t shut off the hotline. It is what it is,” Carroll said. “And as people call, we are mandated to get out there.”

A former employee argued that investigators are assigned cases that have “absolutely 100 percent nothing to do at all with child safety.” Some blame a “knee-jerk reaction” and a fear of having a child fall through the cracks for leading to the inundation of cases.

The department’s 2016 annual review states that the total number of reports of abuse and neglect have decreased less than a percent since the last fiscal year. The number of cases deemed worthy of an investigation, though, increased more than 3 percent.

Even when investigators question whether a case involves a child’s welfare, they are required to investigate — and fill out paperwork — as they would any other case.

“When you get two or three cases a day, you literally cannot do what you need to do to make sure that you’re doing a good job. You can’t do it,” a former investigator said.

Employees call in sick just to finish reports. One investigator took a week’s vacation to close cases, sources told The Post and WPTV.

A 2013 review of the department’s investigations protocols cautioned the department to assess how much time is needed to properly complete reports. Those reports were designed to be completed by investigator with a maximum of 15 cases, not for those with nearly double.

Employees say a significant effort is placed on training investigators on using the methodology properly — partly because, statewide, three-quarters of investigators have fewer than two years of experience with the department, but also because of what some call a reactive system that changes when a child under the state’s eye dies.

Handout photo shows Nubia Barahona, a 10-year-old whose body was found wrapped in plastic in a pest control truck. (WFOR-CBS4)

Intense public scrutiny following 10-year-old Nubia Barahona’s horrific death at the hands of her adoptive parents in 2011 sparked statewide change in how the department investigates abuse cases. Nubia’s body was found decomposing in a pesticide truck on the side of Interstate 95 in West Palm Beach. Her twin brother, Victor, was also in the truck, barely alive, doused in chemicals.

When Tayla Aleman starved to death in April in her Loxahatchee home after multiple department interactions with her family, investigators in the southeast region of the department were retrained in how to handle cases, Carroll said.

But the constant training creates less time to actually complete the reports.

And less time to be investigators.

“There’s no break,” according to a former investigator. “And so you suffer emotionally, mentally, physically. Not just yourself but your own family that you are supposed to come home to at night.”

Following the publication of the Post-WPTV report, DCF released a breakdown of the average caseloads for investigators statewide as of June 20.

Chart courtesy DCF


The DCF breakdown divided Florida into six regions. The 12.2 average caseload per worker in the Southeast region, which includes Palm Beach County along with Broward, Martin, St. Lucie, Okeechobee and Indian River, was the third lowest in the state, above only Central Florida at 11.4 and the Southern region (Miami-Dade and Monroe) at 12.1.

The highest region was in the Northwest part of the state, in Florida’s panhandle, at 13.9 percent. The Suncoast region, which includes gulf coast counties from Collier to Hillsborough, had the second highest average at 13.5. Northeast Florida, along the Atlantic Coast from Daytona Beach to Jacksonville, had an average of 12.3 percent.

Point-in-time data for the Southeast region saw a caseload average of 12.6 on July 13, 12.2 on July 20 and 11.8 on July 27. At no time on these dates did the caseload average in any region of the state exceed 14, DCF’s data shows. The lowest total was 10.7 per Central Florida caseworkers on July 27.

“The statewide average CPI caseload is currently less than 12 and in line with recommended standards. We remain committed to keeping workloads manageable throughout the state to support those doing this important work and the families we serve,” Carroll said.

The size of caseloads is set not by law, but following a department review in the fall of 2016 in which caseworkers told administrators about the issue, DCF said. The state in the 2014-2015 budget year gave DCF funding to add 27- full-time positions including child-protective investigators, as well as an extra $8 million to support sheriff’s offices like the one in Broward that conduct child-protective services investigations.

DCF’s breakdown did not specify how many cases each investigator is handling, nor did it say how often caseloads exceed the recommended 15. DCF also did not provide the underlying data used to calculate the averages.

Coping with chaos

Some quit. Others cut corners.

Thirty-seven of the county’s 100 some investigators left the job last year, state records show, and 20 percent of the county’s investigators quit within their first year in the job.

Turnover is to be expected, Carroll said, for a job with as much stress and as many demands as that of an investigator. It’s emotionally exhausting.

“Eventually every (investigator), I don’t care how good you are as (an investigator), will experience a case you have an outcome that’s less than what you were striving for,” Carroll said.

To make the job more bearable, Carroll said, he wants to make the workload more manageable.

“When I say make workload manageable it’s not going to be easy, it’s not going to be light, it’s just not the nature of the work,” he said. “But make it manageable and give them some semblance of a work-life balance, then I think we can reduce the turnover.”

Some investigators said the only way to do the job is to falsify records.

In the last few months, two former Palm Beach County child protective investigators have been arrested for doing just that.

Ana Milagros Rubirosa and Matthew James Wilcox.

Ana Milagros Rubirosa of Boynton Beach said she faked reports because she was overwhelmed.

Authorities say Matthew James Wilcox of Lake Worth lied in a 2015 child-endangerment report. He never visited the medical center or spoke with the child at the center of the allegations, officials allege. Wilcox confessed to the allegations but said he did it because he felt it was his only choice. The documentation needed for each and every case, he said, was too much.

Both Wilcox and Rubirosa pleaded guilty to a charge of falsifying records and were sentenced to a year probation.

Neither is currently employed with the department.

Carroll had harsh words for investigators who cut corners.

“That makes me angry, because let me tell you, is workload an issue? Yes, but we have workers every day who bust their tail and do it the right way,” Carroll said. “We are an agency that everything we do hinges on our personal credibility. … If you give up your credibility, and I don’t care why you give it up, there’s no room for you in this agency. I’m sorry.”

But multiple current and former investigators admitted they too have cut corners. They just haven’t been caught.

“There’s such an emphasis on hitting these performance measures that some individuals are willing to do whatever it is they need to do to make sure they hit that deadline,” a former investigator said. “It becomes more about numbers and statistics than ensuring a child is safe.”


Olivia Hitchcock

 Palm Beach Post Staff Writer

4:35 p.m Thursday, July 27, 2017  Local News

Foster Care as Punishment: The New Reality of ‘Jane Crow’

Maisha Joefield briefly lost custody of a child who wandered away while she was taking a bath. KEVIN HAGEN FOR THE NEW YORK TIMES

Maisha Joefield thought she was getting by pretty well as a young single mother in Brooklyn, splurging on her daughter, Deja, even though money was tight. When Deja was a baby, she bought her Luvs instead of generic diapers when she could. When her daughter got a little older, Ms. Joefield outfitted the bedroom in their apartment with a princess bed for Deja, while she slept on a pullout couch.

She had family around, too. Though she had broken up with Deja’s father, they spent holidays and vacations together for Deja’s sake. Ms. Joefield’s grandmother lived across the street, and Deja knew she could always go to her great-grandmother’s apartment in an emergency.

One night, exhausted, Ms. Joefield put Deja to bed, and plopped into a bath with her headphones on.

“By the time I come out, I’m looking, I don’t see my child,” said Ms. Joefield, who began frantically searching the building. Deja, who was 5, had indeed headed for the grandmother’s house when she couldn’t find her mother, but the next thing Ms. Joefield knew, it was a police matter.

“I’m thinking, I’ll explain to them what happened, and I’ll get my child,” Ms. Joefield said.

For most parents, this scenario might be a panic-inducing, but hardly insurmountable, hiccup in the long trial of raising a child. Yet for Ms. Joefield and women in her circumstances — living in poor neighborhoods, with few child care options — the consequences can be severe. Police officers removed Deja from her apartment and the Administration for Children’s Services placed her in foster care. Police charged Ms. Joefield with endangering the welfare of a child.

She was caught up in what lawyers and others who represent families say is a troubling and longstanding phenomenon: the power of Children’s Services to take children from their parents on the grounds that the child’s safety is at risk, even with scant evidence.

The agency’s requests for removals filed in family court rose 40 percent in the first quarter of 2017, to 730 from 519, compared with the same period last year, according to figures obtained by The New York Times.

In interviews, dozens of lawyers working on these cases say the removals punish parents who have few resources. Their clients are predominantly poor black and Hispanic women, they say, and the criminalization of their parenting choices has led some to nickname the practice: Jane Crow.

“It takes a lot as a public defender to be shocked, but these are the kinds of cases you hear attorneys screaming about in the hall,” said Scott Hechinger, a lawyer at Brooklyn Defender Services. “There’s this judgment that these mothers don’t have the ability to make decisions about their kids, and in that, society both infantilizes them and holds them to superhuman standards. In another community, your kid’s found outside looking for you because you’re in the bathtub, it’s ‘Oh, my God’” — a story to tell later, he said. “In a poor community, it’s called endangering the welfare of your child.”

Lawyers for parents say the spikes in child removals tend to occur after high-profile failures in the system, and this could well describe the pattern now: In December, the agency administrator resigned after two children who were being monitored by the agency were beaten to death in separate incidents.

As a result, an independent monitor is now assessing the agency, and the new commissioner, David Hansell, has promised to reform it.

Mr. Hansell said in an interview that Children’s Services has been trying to shift from ordering removals to offering support. He supplied figures showing that emergency removals of the kind that took Deja from her mother were about the same, a little over 300, in the first two months of 2017 as during the same period in 2016.

Vivek Sankaran, a professor at the University of Michigan Law School, has examined short-term placements of children in foster care. He learned that in the 2013 federal fiscal year, 25,000 children nationwide were in foster care for 30 days or fewer, about 10 percent of the total removals.

“We’ve inflicted the most devastating remedy we have on these families, then we’re basically saying, within a month, ‘Sorry, our mistake,’” he said. “And these families are left to deal with the consequences.”

After Ms. Joefield was released from jail, she had a court hearing, and Deja was returned to her after four days. Still, the case stayed open for a year, during which she had to take parenting classes, and caseworkers regularly stopped by her apartment to do things like check her cupboards for adequate food supplies and inspect Deja’s body for bruises. “They asked me if I beat her,” Ms. Joefield said. “They’re putting me in this box of bad mothers.”

“It’s a slap in your face to have someone tell you what you can and cannot do with a child that you brought into this world,” she said, wiping tears away.

“I still get nervous,” she said. “You’re afraid to parent the way you would normally parent.”

Birth and Then Shackles

In the spring of 2015, Elizabeth Latimer, then a public defender, was working a shift at Brooklyn Criminal Court when she was told she had a new client.

The woman was in a cell in the back of court, wearing a hospital gown and bleeding heavily. Ms. Latimer’s notes about the client read, “Just gave birth Sunday.” It was Tuesday.

The woman’s medical files show that she had been in her apartment with her 6-year-old daughter when she started bleeding, and felt numbness in one leg.

Her due date was still weeks away. Frightened, she called an ambulance. Then she realized her boyfriend, who was at nearby job-placement program and didn’t have a cellphone, would have no way of knowing if she went to the hospital. So she left her phone with her daughter, told her to stay in their apartment, and walked to the boyfriend’s training site, about eight blocks away.

“I’m like, I understand I’m not supposed to leave my daughter, but it’s an emergency,” said the woman during an interview. Her lawyers asked that she not be named, because her case is still open.

Doubled over with contractions, it took her about 40 minutes to get to the site and back. When the couple returned to the apartment, it was swarming with people. Emergency workers had arrived as she’d requested; finding the daughter alone, they had called the police.

By the time the woman was taken to the hospital, her contractions were four minutes apart, medical records reviewed by The Times show. While she was in labor, police officers stood by her bedside. When a nurse explained to her that she was under arrest, she asked, “How?”

Once she had delivered, her feet were shackled and her hands cuffed to her bed, the records show. Her only reprieve: an officer agreed to take off the cuffs while she breast-fed her newborn son, she said. She was discharged from the hospital with a fever, breast pain, severe abdominal pain and instructions to take various medications. Officers took her from the hospital to criminal court, where, after waiting for hours, she was charged with endangering the welfare of her 6-year-old.

In New York, authorities pursue child neglect cases on two tracks. The district attorney can file a criminal charge of child endangerment; separately, the Administration for Children’s Services can file a family court case, often asking that the child be removed from parental care to the home of a relative, or to foster care. Either police officers or agency workers can take a child from a home if they find imminent risk; agency workers must file a petition in family court by the next court date, at which time they must justify the removal at a hearing.

During her criminal arraignment, the woman sat slumped in a chair, unable to stand.

“I was in pain, I was in badly pain, ready to pass out,” she said.

She found out then that Children’s Services had put her daughter in foster care, but the woman didn’t know where. Because she had tested positive for marijuana, and because of the child endangerment case involving her daughter, she was not allowed to take her newborn son home.

Released from court, she walked 30 minutes each way to the hospital to nurse the baby twice a day. Her breasts became overfull. “I was walking like this on the street,” she said, folding her arms over her chest.

As soon as he was medically cleared to leave the hospital, her newborn son was placed in foster care.

After the woman filed an emergency petition, both children were returned to her after 30 days.

Her criminal case was to be dismissed if she attended parenting classes, while her family court case had no such stipulation. Confused by the conflicting requirements, the woman didn’t attend classes. Three months ago, she was arrested on a warrant for not taking the parenting classes; her case remains open.

Her daughter, interviewed at their apartment, said that she was “sad” when she was sent to the foster home.

Back home, she said, she was “happy.”

She pulled at some Silly Putty. “I get to spend time with my mommy,” she said.

After the woman filed an emergency petition, both children were returned to her after 30 days.

Her criminal case was to be dismissed if she attended parenting classes, while her family court case had no such stipulation. Confused by the conflicting requirements, the woman didn’t attend classes. Three months ago, she was arrested on a warrant for not taking the parenting classes; her case remains open.

Her daughter, interviewed at their apartment, said that she was “sad” when she was sent to the foster home.

Back home, she said, she was “happy.”

She pulled at some Silly Putty. “I get to spend time with my mommy,” she said.

Ms. Joefield plays in a park with her daughters. Her name remained on a registry of child abusers for years, preventing her from working with children. KEVIN HAGEN FOR THE NEW YORK TIMES

A Lasting Effect

Even short-term removals that are reversed can have lasting effects on vulnerable children. It “poses a pretty big threat to their development,” said Kristin Bernard, an assistant professor of psychology at Stony Brook University. A brief stay in foster care like that of Ms. Joefield’s daughter, Deja, can profoundly upset family life.

Mr. Hansell, the commissioner, said the agency was trying to steer away from removing children from the home.

“With increasing frequency over the past six months or so,” he said, “the outcome of our involvement with family court has not been removal of children but court-ordered supervision, under which families are required to participate in services to address the risks that we’ve identified.”

As Ms. Joefield, 32, talked in her Brooklyn apartment, the living room was filled with happy familial chaos. Her toddler shook a box of cereal, her cat’s collar bell tinkled, and Deja, now 13, climbed on the couch, trying to get the cat’s attention.

According to court records from Ms. Joefield’s case, a passer-by found Deja, who was then 5, out on the sidewalk at midnight. The records noted that Deja appeared well looked after. Deja told interviewers that she attended school daily and usually ate pancakes for breakfast.

Deja’s pediatrician told the agency that “Ms. Joefield is very attentive” and that “Deja is a smart kid.” Administrators at Deja’s school said they had no concerns. And Children’s Services, in a report on the family, noted that Ms. Joefield was in college; Deja’s father, who lived nearby, was employed and involved; Deja was “very intelligent for her age”; and there was plenty of family support.

Still, the agency pushed for Deja to be removed, though records show the great-grandmother called the agency asking that Deja be sent to her. Deja’s father was also available.

“This is my opinion: they factored in my age” — she was 25 at the time — “where I lived, and they put me in a box,” Ms. Joefield said.

In Ms. Joefield’s case, a judge decided that “the risk of emotional harm in removal” outweighed the risk of neglect. Deja was returned to her mother.

The Administration for Children’s Services declined to comment on specific cases.

But those four days in 2010, Ms. Joefield said, had produced long-lasting effects.

First, her name remained on a state registry of child abusers for years, preventing Ms. Joefield, a former day care worker, from working with children. Most important, she said, speaking of Deja, the experience had “changed her.”

When her daughter came home, she said, “she was always second-guessing if she did something wrong, if I was mad at her,” she said.

Research backs up what Ms. Joefield noticed. Removal is traumatic for children, even if home life is stressful.

Joseph Doyle, an economics professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Sloan School of Management, used statistical methods to analyze the effect of foster care placement in so-called marginal cases — those in which a strict investigator might put a child in foster care, but a more lenient investigator might not. Over time, the children sent to foster care had higher delinquency rates, higher teen birthrates, lower earnings and a higher likelihood of going to prison as an adult.

Months after Deja’s removal, a caseworker with Children’s Services asked an administrator at Deja’s charter school about the girl. The administrator said, according to agency records, that while she had no concerns about Ms. Joefield’s care, Deja was “not doing as well as she used to before she was removed from her home.”

Living Conditions

The threat of the agency removing children has become a weapon landlords use to force out lower paying tenants. According to dozens of public defenders and housing lawyers, some parents face a stark choice: leave their apartments or lose their kids.

Bernadette Charles found this out when her apartment, in the East Flatbush neighborhood of Brooklyn, experienced problem after problem. A sluice of brown water came through the ceiling, ruining the suede couch she had just purchased on credit. Large rats took over the kitchen.

While her husband spent his days driving a school bus, she spent hers worrying about how each new hazard would affect her four sons. At first she kept quiet. She felt fortunate to have a place where her family could meet the rent. One day she walked into the bathroom to find black mold sprouting in paisley patterns on the walls. For Ms. Charles, that was the breaking point.

Ms. Charles said that when her landlord learned she had complained to 311 about conditions, he punished her by calling Children’s Services. The agency worker arrived days later. The worker cited unsafe conditions, including roaches and dirty dishes in the sink. Despite noting that the couple’s four children were “clean and healthy,” the worker said they could not stay and removed the children. Ms. Charles remembers her youngest, who was 3 at the time, wailing as he was taken from the apartment.

“He didn’t want to give us any chance,” Ms. Charles said of the Children’s Services agent. Three days later, a judge ordered that the family be reunited.

Colyssa Stapleton left her baby upstairs while she went downstairs to receive a delivery of baby formula. She lost custody for six months. EDU BAYER FOR THE NEW YORK TIMES

Vanished Months

One December night in 2011, Colyssa Stapleton ran out of formula for her 7-month-old, Nevaeh, and texted Nevaeh’s father, who lived nearby, asking him to buy some. When he texted back that he was en route and she should come downstairs, Ms. Stapleton dashed to the yard of her Brooklyn apartment building to wait for him.

Unfortunately for Ms. Stapleton, the police were patrolling the area and her aunt was in the yard smoking marijuana. Ms. Stapleton says she was not smoking and the police report noted that only one joint was found and that Ms. Stapleton’s aunt was seen throwing it to the ground. But both women were charged with marijuana possession.

Ms. Stapleton protested that her infant daughter was upstairs by herself. The police officers accused Ms. Stapleton of endangering the welfare of a child.

They took Nevaeh to the hospital, where she was found to be “in great condition.” Even so, Children’s Services placed Nevaeh with her father for six months and Ms. Stapleton was forbidden contact.

“I thought of where I could’ve tried and done something better, but taking her all the way downstairs and all the way upstairs — I didn’t think of it as something that would get you into trouble,” said Ms. Stapleton, now 24.

When she saw Nevaeh after several months, in the hallway of family court, the girl cried. “Her dad was like, ‘Now you don’t know nothing about her,’ and he was right,” she said.

Without her daughter to take care of, Ms. Stapleton sank into depression. “It came to a point where I’d shut myself into a room and not come out, not eat,” she said.

After a year and a variety of parenting classes taken during 2012, the criminal charges were functionally dismissed, and she regained full custody of Nevaeh, but Ms. Stapleton said she is aware of what she lost.

“She didn’t take her first steps around me, so I missed that. Her first tooth, I didn’t get to see that,” she said. “I don’t think anybody should be robbed of those things unless they really deserved it.”





Eckerd Kids: Teens in group foster homes must be allowed to keep phones

For many teens still reeling from being taken into foster care, a cellphone is a lifeline, child advocates say.

It’s their one connection to the world they left behind, a link to friends, romantic interests and reassuring emojis.

Yet many group foster homes confiscate or heavily restrict access to cellphones. In some cases, it is to prevent unauthorized contact by their parents, but it is also to protect the privacy of other foster children.

That is set to change in January when Eckerd Kids, the agency that runs child welfare in Hillsborough, Pinellas and Pasco counties, will require that group foster homes allow teens to keep their cellphones.

The move comes after the agency encountered teens who balked at going to homes that restricted their cellphone use.

“To increase normalcy amongst foster children in Tampa Bay, Eckerd Kids is requiring that all contracted group home providers develop and implement a policy on allowing cell phone usage by youth in their programs,” said spokeswoman Adrienne Drew in a statement.

But some group home providers have concerns.

At the county-owned Lake Magdalene group home in Carrollwood, the cellphones of newly arrived children are taken and stored in an administration office with other personal belongings. Then they are checked for profanity, drug references and inappropriate digital images.

JoAnn Rollins, director of Hillsborough County Children’s Services, said foster homes share regular parents’ cellphone concerns such as “sexting” and cyber-bullying. On top of that, they often cater to teens who have run away or been exploited by adults. There is a risk children would use their cellphones to let “unsavory” characters know where they are staying or to post pictures of other foster children on social media, she said.

“We’re not saying no phones,” Rollins said. “We’re just asking that we’re allowed to protect the privacy and identity of the youth that we serve.”

Children at Lake Magdalene who have a specific need for a cellphone, such as for school, work or court-ordered communication with a relative, get their phones returned. Other children may be approved to use their phones by their case managers or therapists. Typically, children would sign out a phone from an administration office when they leave the group home and hand it back over on their return.

Landlines are also available for children who do not have a cellphone. The home maintains a list of approved contacts.

Rollins plans to meet with Eckerd Kids to discuss whether Lake Magdalene’s policy complies with the new directive.

“We want to make sure the children’s whereabouts are not being compromised and pictures of youths are not being taken who have not given permission,” she said.

The Children’s Home Network, which runs a 66-bed foster home on Memorial Highway, also grants cellphone access on a case-by case basis, president and CEO Irene Rickus said in an email.

“At CHN we strive to maintain normalcy to the greatest degree possible, while balancing safety and social connectedness,” she said.

Concerns about electronic devices were heightened in January after a 14-year-old girl made international news when she live-streamed her suicide on Facebook from a private foster home in Miami.

The state, which licenses group homes, is silent on how cellphones should be regulated. But it does require “normalcy” for foster children.

“Today, most kids have cell phones and they should too,” said Ralph Stoddard, a Hillsborough County circuit judge who heard child dependency cases for six years.

Few, if any, best practices have been established to give guidance to child welfare agencies, said Adam Pertman, president and CEO of the National Center on Adoption and Permanency.

“I think there can be genuine benefits, but there have to be enforced rules and regulations to minimize potential misuse,” Pertman said.

Group homes that allow children to keep phones usually enforce a raft of conditions.

Children are required to turn off phones at lights-out times and not to lend them to other children. Taking pictures of other children or helping them to contact others is also prohibited. Those policies apply to any device that provides unrestricted access to the Internet.

Eckerd Kids’ new policy is supported by Florida’s Children First, a statewide advocacy organization focused on children’s rights.

Older kids in foster care often move from home to home until they are reunified or get a permanent placement. Without cellphones, they will lose contact with friends and feel more isolated, said Christina Spudeas, the organization’s executive director.

There is a need for close supervision, she said, but phones also give foster children a way to call for help when needed.

“It’s important because it puts them in the same place as every other kid in our society,” Spudeas said. “It makes them feel normal.”

Contact Christopher O’Donnell at codonnell@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3446. Follow @codonnell_Times.


Three kids, seven foster children and a whole lot of love

Kathryn Melendez, far right, speaks with her biological and foster children May 2 at her home in Gibsonton. “If everybody who could took just one, it would make such a huge difference in these kids’ lives,” Melendez says.

Kathryn Melendez, far right, speaks with her biological and foster children May 2 at her home in Gibsonton. “If everybody who could took just one, it would make such a huge difference in these kids’ lives,” Melendez says. CHRIS URSO | Times

To the kids who stay with her, Kathryn Melendez is “Mom” or “Miss Kathryn.”

Some of her teenage girls even call her “Bae,” slang shorthand for “before anyone else.”

The endearment is hard won.

Since she began fostering in Florida in 2004, more than 200 children have arrived on Melendez’s doorstep, most of them scared, withdrawn, traumatized. One or two run away but most stay for at least a year, some until they age out of foster care.

Mother’s Day this year was celebrated at her five-bedroom Gibsonton home with her husband, three children and seven foster kids. In a home chock full of children, dogs and noise, her laugh is the deepest, her hug the most sought after.

Eckerd Kids doesn’t expect to find many foster moms like Melendez, but even finding parents willing to foster just one or two children remains a challenge for the agency that runs child welfare in Hillsborough, Pasco and Pinellas counties. That is especially true in Hillsborough County, where more children are taken into care than anywhere else in Florida.

Both biological children of Kathryn Melendez and foster children play a board game after school May 2 at the Melendez home in Gibsonton. “I have had kids say to me ‘if it wasn’t for you, I would have dropped out,’ ” says Melendez.

Both biological children of Kathryn Melendez and foster children play a board game after school May 2 at the Melendez home in Gibsonton. “I have had kids say to me ‘if it wasn’t for you, I would have dropped out,’?” says Melendez. Photos by CHRIS URSO | Times

The agency this month is stepping up efforts to make up that shortfall with new radio advertisements and a social media campaign. It has partnered with churches, businesses and day cares, and even launched an online orientation program so parents can take the first steps toward fostering without leaving home.

The timing of the campaign is no accident.

The upcoming end of the school year typically brings a spike in the number of children being taken into care, in part because of reports from teachers who fear for children they will no longer see every day in school.

“If everybody who could took just one, it would make such a huge difference in these kids’ lives and the amount of kids who are just put in a teen center,” said Melendez, 49. “Just one.”

• • •

One Eckerd recruitment advertisement features a group of smiling, friendly looking children.

“(Foster parents) help calm our fears and wipe our tears,” said Chloe, who spent two years in foster care.

Another promotion features foster children who have gone on to achieve fame and fortune like Olympic gymnast Simone Biles and former Minnesota Vikings quarterback Daunte Culpepper.

The reality is usually more gritty.

Most foster children come from extreme poverty. They may have behavioral issues like attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, anger issues or be the victims of sexual abuse. Others come into the foster system after being held in juvenile detention centers.

Kathryn Melendez, right, shares a laugh with sisters Natalia Negron, 16, left, and Veronica, 14, two of the foster children who live in the Melendez home.

Kathryn Melendez, right, shares a laugh with sisters Natalia Negron, 16, left, and Veronica, 14, two of the foster children who live in the Melendez home. CHRIS URSO | Times

The greatest need for foster parents in Tampa Bay is in Hillsborough. In 2016, the county generated about 16,700 reports of abuse or neglect. They resulted in 1,592 children being taken into care.

The majority of those are 5 or younger but the county’s greatest need is for homes willing to take teenagers, since most foster parents want young children.

Hillsborough has roughly 440 foster homes providing about 820 beds. To deal with the shortfall, Eckerd makes regular use of waivers so parents can care for one or two more children than they are licensed to take. Other children are housed at group foster homes.

Pinellas and Pasco, which fall under a single judicial circuit, have a total of 435 foster homes that can accommodate about 815 children. The majority of children in care there are 10 and under, including many infants and toddlers.

Adding to the shortfall is that foster homes close each month. The reasons vary. Some get exasperated with problem children while others end up adopting a child they have grown to love.

“There is a constant need for homes as the intake of kids is increasing,” said Eckerd spokeswoman Adrienne Drew. “We need homes to accommodate sibling groups, language barriers, disabilities, teens, and to be able to handle children that may have behavior problems.”

Kathryn Melendez holds one of her Maltese dogs while talking about her three children and seven foster children. "Our job is to put families back together again," Melendez said.  [CHRIS URSO   |   Times]

Kathryn Melendez holds one of her Maltese dogs while talking about her three children and seven foster children. “Our job is to put families back together again,” Melendez said. [CHRIS URSO | Times]

Melendez said that some parents get into fostering because they think they are going to rescue a child or because they want a cute little baby in the home. They forget that their job is to love the child and keep them safe until they can return to their biological family.

“Any expectation that you have like you’re going to save these kids’ world and that they will be rolling out the red carpet with ‘pleases’ and ‘thank-yous’ and gratitude, you’re not going to get,” she said. “These kids are too traumatized to be able to show that kind of appreciation when they first come into care.”

• • •

Nothing is easy in a home with nine children.

Melendez does four loads of washing a day so her kids don’t end up “drying themselves with paper towels.” She hand-built triple bunk beds and got an electrician to install a power outlet for every bunk so there is no argument about who unplugged someone else’s phone charger.

Help comes from husband Gil Melendez, who works from home.

Their kids usually grab breakfast at school, leaving home early with a chorus of “bye mom” as they rush for the school bus. By 4 p.m., her home is crowded again with children doing their homework and playing.

Evening meals are eaten at an 8-foot-long dining table, another Melendez construction project. For some of her children, it’s their first experience of a regular family meal.

Foster parents receive a stipend of up to $510 per month depending on the age of the child. The allowance is intended to cover the cost of food, clothes and other daily expenses.

Melendez said it covers the basics but little else. Her electric bill is like other people’s rent, she jokes.

“I’m raising teenage girls; no amount of money they are ever going to give me will be enough,” she said.

A Massachusetts native, Melendez was a headstrong know-it-all teenager growing up. She tried to run away from home and skipped out of school.

The unconditional love that her parents gave her made her realize later how lucky she was. That’s what she wants to give to the teens that now call her “mom.”

“I foster in honor of my parents,” she said.

There is no one way to turn the stranger on her doorstep into someone who trusts and loves her, Melendez said.

When the children first arrive, they are usually withdrawn and suspicious.

She looks for band names on their T-shirts or on their iPods to see what music they like or what games they play on their smartphones to find something she can talk to them about.

For one girl, trust came only when Melendez rushed down to the school bus and confronted the mother of another girl who was bullying her.

“That’s all it took to trigger in her mind, ‘I’m okay here; she’s going to protect me,’ ” Melendez said.

Natalia Negron, 16, has lived with Melendez for about two years. Her 14-year-old sister, Veronica, joined her one year later.

Natalia remembers Melendez bringing her a bowl of cereal her first day there.

“She was welcoming but I didn’t know nothing about her,” she said.

She and her sister were taken into foster care because of abuse taking place in their home. At the Melendez home, they feel part of the family.

“I had a hard time opening up to her,” Natalia said. “Now, before I cry, I go to her and then I cry.”

Contact Christopher O’Donnell at codonnell@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3446. Follow @codonnell_Times.

Foster parenting

To learn more about becoming a foster parent, go to eckerd.org/foster or call Eckerd Kids at


Three kids, seven foster children and a whole lot of love 05/15/17 [Last modified: Sunday, May 14, 2017 7:41pm]
Photo reprints | Article reprints

© 2017 Tampa Bay Times

Child abuse tips silenced for months by DCF computer glitch

Pasco County Sheriff Chris Nocco addresses the media in December. Speaking this week about a state software glitch that delayed release of child abuse tips to law enforcement, he said his agency does not yet know the impact to Pasco children. "As all law enforcement agencies know, a delay like this is never a good thing," he said.  [ANDRES LEIVA   |   Times]

Pasco County Sheriff Chris Nocco addresses the media in December. Speaking this week about a state software glitch that delayed release of child abuse tips to law enforcement, he said his agency does not yet know the impact to Pasco children. “As all law enforcement agencies know, a delay like this is never a good thing,” he said. [ANDRES LEIVA | Times]

Hundreds of reports about potential child abuse may have been overlooked for months because of a Florida Department of Children and Families computer glitch.

About 1,500 tips to the Florida Abuse Hotline ­— the state’s front line for child protection — were not sent electronically to law enforcement agencies between February and April because of a software problem, DCF officials said. That included roughly 230 cases in the Tampa Bay region.

Reports of abuse or neglect by parents, which are handled by child welfare investigators, were not affected. But tips on abuse by others, including neighbors, teachers or strangers, stalled in the DCF’s computers.

Some of those cases may still have been investigated, DCF officials said. Even though the software failed, abuse hotline operators were still able to transfer calls to 911.

But local law enforcement agencies received notice of some reports only when the backlog was resolved on May 3. In some cases, agencies are still wading through them to determine if an investigation is warranted.

“As all law enforcement agencies know, a delay like this is never a good thing,” said Pasco County Sheriff Chris Nocco. “We will not know the impact to Pasco children until a thorough review of all the cases is complete, and that review is ongoing.”

DCF officials said at least half of the electronically delayed reports reflected a special situation, such as an absent parent or child-on-child sexual abuse. Those calls were relayed to the same child welfare investigators who review complaints against parents.

The glitch was caused by a software update made on Feb. 4 to the system used by hotline operators. It was not detected until April 28.

After the problem was fixed, the backlog of reports was sent to local sheriff’s offices across Florida on May 3.

“The department is working with the software vendor to implement an alert system to notify the department anytime a backlog is created in the future,” said DCF spokeswoman Jessica Sims in a statement. “The department is continuing to work with our partners in law enforcement to appropriately investigate these allegations and we remain committed to ensuring the safety of all children and vulnerable adults in Florida.”

The 1,500 reports included 113 from Hillsborough County, about 70 from Pinellas County and 32 in Pasco, according to the DCF.

Pasco officials disputed that number, saying they had received more than 100 delayed reports.

Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri said most of the backlogged calls his office received were forwarded to police departments in St. Petersburg, Clearwater and Largo.

Of 22 reports in unincorporated Pinellas, only two were new cases, he said.

“Any time anything like that happens it gives you some concern,” he said. “With all the technology we have, sometimes systems do have issues.”

The Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office responded to 65 delayed reports, said spokesman Larry McKinnon.

“Our goal is always to get the information as quickly as possible so we can respond as quickly as we can,” he said. “We’re glad they were able to get the system fixed.

Contact Christopher O’Donnell at codonnell@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3446. Follow @codonnell_Times.

Child abuse tips silenced for months by DCF computer glitch 05/10/17 [Last modified: Wednesday, May 10, 2017 6:11am]
Photo reprints | Article reprints

© 2017 Tampa Bay Times

Eckerd Kids shuts down troubled out-of-hours teen center

The agency that runs child welfare in Hillsborough County is closing a troubled out-of-hours teen center.

Eckerd Kids announced Wednesday that it will terminate its contract with subcontractor Camelot Community Care to run the Ybor Heights center, which is used to temporarily house and supervise children entering the foster care system until they are placed with foster parents or in a group home.

Eckerd officials declined to state why they were unhappy with Camelot’s performance. Efforts last month to find another provider were unsuccessful. No firm other than Camelot bid for the job.

“Eckerd Kids has made numerous attempts to improve the performance of Camelot’s Teen Center,” said spokeswoman Adrienne Drew, in a statement. “We believe this move will provide the best environment for our foster children, which is our number one goal.”

The Tampa Police Department has responded to 13 disturbance calls and 57 runaway reports at the center this year, records show. Last weekend, a case manager was injured and a teenager was arrested, Eckerd said.

In addition to supervision, Eckerd’s $500,000 contract with Camelot covers the transportation of foster children to and from school and day care centers.

In January, a Camelot driver mistakenly dropped a 4-year-old foster girl at the wrong home in Tampa. The contract for transportation has also been put out for bid.

Concerns about the center were raised at a regular meeting of child welfare stakeholders held this week at the Children’s Board of Hillsborough County.

Children are allowed to stay for up to four hours at the center outside of regular working hours until they are placed. But in some cases children ended up there longer because they did not want to go to certain foster or group homes.

“There are a variety of reasons children won’t go to some places,” said Robin Rosenberg, deputy director of Florida’s Children First, a statewide advocacy organization focused on children’s rights. “They may not feel safe or the place is not respectful to them.”

Contact Christopher O’Donnell at codonnell@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3446. Follow @codonnell_Times.


Eckerd Kids shuts down troubled out-of-hours teen center 05/10/17 [Last modified: Wednesday, May 10, 2017 6:35pm]
Photo reprints | Article reprints

While kids slept in offices, foster beds went empty

A staffer watches over children outside of a dorm at Hillsborough County’s emergency shelter for foster kids and other children at Lake Magdalene in Tampa. Hillsborough officials have offered to let Eckerd Kids use two empty cottages on the Lake Magdalene campus but so far they remain unfilled despite a shortage of homes to place kids.  [Times (2009)]

A staffer watches over children outside of a dorm at Hillsborough County’s emergency shelter for foster kids and other children at Lake Magdalene in Tampa. Hillsborough officials have offered to let Eckerd Kids use two empty cottages on the Lake Magdalene campus but so far they remain unfilled despite a shortage of homes to place kids. [Times (2009)]

The plight of foster children forced to sleep on air mattresses in offices last summer led to outrage and the state ordering additional oversight of Eckerd Kids, the agency that runs child welfare in Hillsborough County.

But even as social workers were preparing the make-do accommodation, records show that between 10 and 21 foster beds went unused at the Lake Magdalene group foster home, a county-owned facility in Carrollwood.

And the foster home remains a thorny issue between Eckerd Kids and county officials who in August agreed to let the nonprofit use two of Lake Magdalene’s cottages for hard-to-place foster children ages 10 and older.

Almost one year later, the cottages still sit empty after Eckerd Kids balked at paying the $1.6 million or more it would cost to staff and run the program each year.

That has frustrated county officials who hoped the extra accommodation would ease the strain on the county’s existing foster care system.

“We gave them a lifeline to help take care of a serious problem,” said Commissioner Sandy Murman, who serves on the county’s Blue Ribbon Commission for Child Safety. “I think it’s all going down to the bottom line of many providers.”

Eckerd Kids officials said that some of the children who slept in offices last summer were not accepted by Lake Magdalene because they were coming out of Department of Juvenile Justice centers or had documented behavioral issues or other problems not compatible with the care programs at the group home.

“Lake Magdalene screened all youth presented and accepted those who they believed to be appropriate for the level of service offered through their program,” said Eckerd Kids spokeswoman Adrienne Drew.

Still, county records show the group home had an average of 21 empty beds per night in April, 12 in May and 10 in June, when the agency was struggling to find enough foster beds. Almost 40 foster children slept for one or two nights in unlicensed facilities, including an office and a teen recreation center, over that period.

On 23 acres, Lake Magdalene provides temporary housing for 10- to 17-year-old children who were abused, abandoned or neglected, many of whom have failed multiple placements. First opened in the 1940s, the campus has grown to include cottages for boys and girls with 42 beds, a dining hall, learning center, rec space, job training and administrative offices.

A review of the facility in 2009 found persistent problems with runaways, arrests, drug use and sexual assault, and a state investigation said staffers worried for the safety of the children. Reports also showed many beds often were empty.

The report led to staff shakeups and new leaders there say they have addressed problems head on, with less focus on confinement and more on improving outcomes.

However, vacancies remain.

JoAnn Rollins, the director of Hillsborough County Children’s Services, said children are screened before they are placed at Lake Magdalene. If a child presents a risk to other foster children or if the county lacks services that fit the child’s needs, the child can be turned away.

“We won’t house them like they’re sardines, and we won’t bring in anybody and just warehouse them,” Rollins said.

Eckerd Kids, which is paid $70 million per year by the state to place and care for children in foster and group homes in Hillsborough, pays the county $140 per day for every child it places at Lake Magdalene. The county pays the rest of the $529 daily cost per child, an amount that includes specialists such as psychologists, along with routine caregivers.

The plan to make two cottages available for Eckerd Kids to run was drawn up by county officials, along with the agency and the Children’s Board of Hillsborough County.

Eckerd Kids planned to use them for a residential program that would be the first in the state to accept all foster children regardless of any concerns about past delinquency or mental and behavioral health concerns. Violent teens would be required to be assessed by a therapist within 24 hours of admittance.

Eckerd Kids approached Children’s Home Network, a Tampa nonprofit group, to run the center.

County commissioners approved the plan in August. The contract with Eckerd Kids gave it sole use of the two cottages rent-free. It would have to pay the county $350 per month to cover utilities.

“We did our part; they’re prepared for use,” Rollins said.

The contract states that Eckerd Kids would pay for staffing, anticipating a cost of $1.7 million per year.

Yet some six months after the agreement was signed, Children’s Home told Eckerd Kids it was still hiring staffers, according to Eckerd Kids.

Shortly after, Eckerd Kids told Children’s Home that it could not afford to run the program and planned to contact the Florida Department of Children and Families to seek additional funding.

Eckerd Kids is now working with another nonprofit agency, Youth and Family Alternatives, to work out a more “cost effective” plan for the cottages.

Rollins said only Eckerd Kids can explain why the cottages still sit empty. More children are taken into foster care in Hillsborough than any other Florida county. In 2016, child protection investigators at the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office received more than 16,700 reports of abuse or neglect. They resulted in 1,592 children being taken into care.

“Everything is a work in progress,” Rollins said. “Hillsborough County as a whole is going to have to look at how it is coordinating care.”

Contact Christopher O’Donnell at codonnell@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3446. Follow @codonnell_Times.

While kids slept in offices, foster beds went empty 05/08/17 [Last modified: Wednesday, May 10, 2017 3:32pm]
Photo reprints | Article reprints

© 2017 Tampa Bay Times

Goal of state’s new child welfare plan: more help for investigators and more foster parents

Department of Children and Families Secretary Mike Carroll: “We’ve got a long way to go.”

Department of Children and Families Secretary Mike Carroll: “We’ve got a long way to go.”

The critical decision to remove a child from a home because of abuse or neglect is based on the work of child welfare investigators.

But about 80 percent of Florida’s investigators have less than two years’ experience. And more than half are juggling heavy caseloads.

Fixing those problems is one focus of a new attempt to improve Florida’s child welfare system.

The Florida Department of Children and Families plans to work with national experts to give investigators better training and to reduce their workload. There also will be more services for parents struggling with opioid and other addictions, more financial help for families who take in the children of relatives and more efforts to recruit foster parents.

Those measures are the DCF’s response to a critical federal review of the state’s welfare system compiled last year by the Children’s Bureau, part of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. In more than half of 80 reviewed cases, the bureau said, child welfare agencies removed children from homes without first providing appropriate services that could have helped families. Agencies also were lax in following safety plans, according to the review.

Even before it received the findings, the DCF had contracted with Action for Child Protection — a national child welfare consulting organization — to improve how investigators assess and monitor families reported for abuse or neglect.

Agencies that run child welfare will be told to do a better job finding relatives that can give short-term homes to children taken from their parents. Those families should also get more help applying for and receiving “caregiver” benefits, which total up to $298 per month for older children.

The goal is to keep children in their home and to provide more services such as addiction counseling or parenting classes. Once taken into the care of the state, children spend months and sometimes years stuck in a system that typically moves slowly. Only about 43 percent of children under the care of the state are permanently placed — either returned to their parents or adopted — within 12 months.

“This is a continuation of what we’ve been doing,” said DCF Secretary Mike Carroll. “We’re clearly making improvements, but we’ve got a long way to go. I feel a real sense of urgency to pick up the pace.”

Still, high turnover of investigators, who in Hillsborough County earn about $45,000 annually once they complete initial training, remains a problem for the DCF, Carroll acknowledged.

Part of the problem is the workload, he said. More than 51 percent of investigators are responsible for more than 15 active investigations, records show.

“These are entry-level jobs, and we work folks to the bone,” Carroll said.

Turnover also has been a problem for the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office, which employs about 83 child protective investigators to assess abuse and neglect allegations.

In 2015, its Child Protective Investigations Division lost 42 investigators. It reduced that to 28 in 2016 by providing new investigators with more support, said Capt. Jim Bradford, the deputy division commander.

The recent changes made by the DCF also have helped. Investigators can now more quickly drop cases that clearly have no merit, such as allegations that sometimes come from angry neighbors or disgruntled ex-spouses.

The federal review of the DCF also found that the state was not providing enough services such as counseling, anger management and physical therapy for children, particularly in rural areas. Two Harvard University fellows are working with the DCF to address the problem.

The challenge is that some of those services fall outside of the DCF’s budget. They may be paid for through Medicaid, private health insurance or local government’s community mental health budgets, making it tougher for the DCF to control.

To recruit more foster parents, Carroll is expecting care agencies to take a more sophisticated approach when reaching out to the community.

“If you need homes for teens, you need to be recruiting homes for teens,” he said. “The demographics of the folks willing to do that is significantly different than those willing to take young children.”

The DCF’s plan has been sent to the Children’s Bureau for approval. Carroll expects only minor changes. With many of the initiatives already under way, the cost will be minimal, Carroll said.

But funding remains an issue for child welfare, said Kurt Kelly, a former state lawmaker and chief executive officer of the Florida Coalition for Children, a statewide association that represents community-based care agencies.

His group lobbied state lawmakers to provide an extra $49 million this year for the agencies that run child welfare to hire more case managers and reduce the workload of existing ones.

Preliminary budgets show they are likely to get between $14 million and $20 million extra.

“It’s not enough,” Kelly said. “We would be able to hire more case managers and train them more. We would be able to provide a bigger array of services and more best practice for in-home and out-of-home care.”

Contact Christopher O’Donnell at codonnell@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3446. Follow @codonnell_Times.

Goal of state’s new child welfare plan: more help for investigators and more foster parents 04/21/17 [Last modified: Monday, April 24, 2017 8:09pm]
Photo reprints | Article reprints

© 2017 Tampa Bay Times

New bill aims to create alternative to foster care for struggling families but lack of oversight worries some

Odessa pastor Chris Basham, right, his wife, Karen, and their two kids have been a host family for the Safe Families program.

Odessa pastor Chris Basham, right, his wife, Karen, and their two kids have been a host family for the Safe Families program. LUIS SANTANA | Times

One parent losing a job, being admitted to a hospital or struggling with addiction can be difficult for any family. For a single parent, however, it can also mean losing children to the foster care system.

Supporters of a proposed law hope to change that.

The Temporary Care of a Child Act aims to create a less intrusive alternative to foster care. It would allow nonprofit agencies like church groups to match struggling parents with “respite” or host families who would care for children until parents are back on their feet.

Participation would be voluntary, but supporters say it would be a safety net for parents who shy away from seeking help because they fear the state will take away their children. It could also reduce the pressure on Florida’s overburdened child welfare system.

The program would be run on a volunteer basis with neither agencies nor host families receiving any payment for placing and caring for children.

The concept is not new. Bethany Christian Services of Florida, a church group that provides family services including adoption, already runs a similar program in Tampa, Orlando and Lakeland. A handful of other states, including Illinois and Indiana, already have passed laws recognizing the role of host families.

Karen Basham, Sarah Grace Basham, Chris Basham and Bradley Basham enjoys a family dinner in their Land O' Lakes home while talking about adoption and foster children. The Bashams serve as a host family for the Safe Families program. [Thursday, April 6, 2017] [Photo Luis Santana | Times]

Karen Basham, Sarah Grace Basham, Chris Basham and Bradley Basham enjoys a family dinner in their Land O’ Lakes home while talking about adoption and foster children. The Bashams serve as a host family for the Safe Families program. [Thursday, April 6, 2017] [Photo Luis Santana | Times] LUIS SANTANA | Times

A Florida law would put the programs on a firmer legal footing and would likely lead to their spread across the state, said state Rep. Frank White, R-Pensacola, who filed the bill.

Florida particularly needs host families, White said, because it attracts people who moved here for work or for sunshine, leaving behind relatives who might otherwise help in times of trouble.

“We don’t have the same family and community ties we used to have,” he said. “This program strengthens those community bonds. This is more than please put a roof over my kid’s head.”

Only families who pass a background check would be eligible to host children and stays would be capped at 90 days. Children previously removed from parents because of abuse or neglect or whose parents are in the middle of a custody battle would not be eligible.

Still, there are concerns about how little oversight is proposed for the program.

Family law attorneys want safeguards so parents who don’t have custody of their children can step in instead of host families. They also question why the bill does not require licensing of the nonprofit groups that match families.

Amy Hickman, an attorney with the family law section of the Florida Bar, said there needs to be standards for oversight of the agencies and frequency of home visits when children are living with host families.

“There is no licensing; there is no requirement they have experienced and professional staff that can assist in training in volunteer homes or for monitoring children in volunteer homes,” Hickman said.

White’s response: Divorce agreements already stipulate the rights of parents who do not have primary custody. And licensing the nonprofit agencies through the Florida Department of Children and Families would do little to help the children in need, he said.

“They aren’t getting any government money for administering (this),” he said. “DCF is already overburdened with overwhelming challenges today.”

That doesn’t satisfy the family law section of the Bar, which is lobbying for the law to include standards for monitoring children.

“If we’re going to write it into law, we needs some standards in there to protect children,” Hickman said.

The bill is backed by the Foundation for Government Accountability, a think tank that supported Gov. Rick Scott’s plan to drug test welfare recipients. The community can mobilize to care for families in crisis before the problem reaches the level of child neglect, its website states.

Most of the parents who turn to host families for help are single parents, said Kevin Trotter, an assistant executive director at Bethany Christian Services of Florida.

The nonprofit group, which is licensed as an adoption agency in Florida, piloted a host family program in Orlando in 2009. Known as Safe Families for Children, it now has 124 approved volunteer host families, including 50 in the Tampa Bay area.

In all, some 656 children have been placed since the program began, Trotter said.

Having a child taken into foster care is one of the biggest fears that struggling parents face, he said. Only about 43 percent of children under the care of the state are either returned to their parents or adopted within 12 months.

“They wait so long to ask for help, and that’s when children, especially little ones, are at risk of abuse and neglect,” Trotter said.

Parents are encouraged to call and visit their children as often as they wish and to forge friendships with the host families.

Bethany Christian staffers visit host families to make sure their homes are suitable for children and are equipped with fire extinguishers and smoke detectors. Child safety, appropriate discipline techniques and dealing with child trauma are among the topics included in a training program for parents.

Odessa pastor Chris Basham welcomed two children into the home that he shares with his wife, Karen, and their two children last summer through the Safe Families program.

Vanessa, a fifth-grader, and Terrence, a kindergartener, stayed in the family’s four-bedroom home for about four weeks after their mother, who has three other kids, lost her job, and then her home.

There were challenges at first, Basham said. The girl especially missed her mother. It helped that she could telephone her every evening.

When her birthday came along, the Bashams arranged for all her family to attend her party. She was told the presents she received were from her mother.

“Our goal was not to embarrass Mom and, ‘We’ve come to save the day,’ ” Basham said. “It was to point her back to her mom.”

With help from Safe Families, the mother found somewhere to live. She has since found work and now has all her children back at home, Trotter said.

More than 30 percent of members of the Church at Odessa that Basham leads have either adopted, fostered or served as host families, an act of Christian love and caring, he said.

“They’re trying to prevent these kids from being in the foster system,” he said. “They’re trying to give mom and dad a chance to get back on their feet, get the problem solved and get that child back.”

Contact Christopher O’Donnell at codonnell@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3446. Follow @codonnell_Times.

New bill aims to create alternative to foster care for struggling families but lack of oversight worries some 04/07/17 [Last modified: Saturday, April 8, 2017 7:28pm]
Photo reprints | Article reprints

© 2017 Tampa Bay Times

A Transition Guide to Post-Secondary Education and Employment for Students and Youth with Disabilities (2017)

To assist students and youth with disabilities to achieve their post-school and career goals, Congress enacted two key statutes that address the provision of transition services: the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) and the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 (Rehabilitation Act), as amended by Title IV of the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA). Both the IDEA and the Rehabilitation Act make clear that transition services require a coordinated set of activities for a student with a disability within an outcome-oriented process. This process promotes movement from school to post-school activities, such as postsecondary education, and includes vocational training, and competitive integrated employment. Active student involvement, family engagement, and cooperative implementation of transition activities, as well as coordination and collaboration between the VR agency, the SEA, and the LEAs are essential to the creation of a process that results in no undue delay or disruption in service delivery.

As students and youth with disabilities prepare to transition to adult life, we must do everything we can to provide them with the information, services, and supports they need to ensure that they have the opportunity to achieve their goals. We hope this transition guide will also help students and youth with disabilities and their families to better understand how the SEA, the LEA, and the VR agency work together to facilitate improved outcomes for students and youth with disabilities.

Access “A Transition Guide to Post-Secondary Education and Employment for Students and Youth with Disabilities”

Foster mom arrested in death of boy headed for adoption

Latamara Stackhouse Flythe was charged with first-degree murder and aggravated child abuse.

Latamara Stackhouse Flythe was charged with first-degree murder and aggravated child abuse.

A foster mother has been arrested in the death of a 17-month-old boy who suffered apparent head injuries just weeks before he was likely to be adopted.

Latamara Stackhouse Flythe was arrested on a charge of first-degree murder and aggravated child abuse in the death of Aedyn Agminalis, who died Dec. 11 after he was rushed to St. Joseph’s Children’s Hospital. The child had been in Flythe’s care since September.

Doctors at the hospital noted signs of head trauma in the boy, who was described as being unresponsive. “Findings were very suspicious for non-accidental trauma,” a doctor’s report stated.

The boy was hooked up to a life-support system, but doctors could find no brain activity, according to Artha Healton, Aedyn’s biological mother. He died when doctors turned off the machine.

An autopsy showed “sustained trauma” to the head, which resulted in bleeding inside his brain and led to his death, according to an arrest warrant.

“(She) admits she was the only person with the child during the time the medical professionals opine the injury would have been inflicted,” the warrant states.

Flythe, 43, was arrested Feb. 20 and was still in jail as of Monday afternoon. She is denying the charges, according to a court document seeking bail.

At the time of the boy’s death, an active investigation of the foster home in Riverview was already under way because of a choking incident on Dec. 4 that led to Aedyn being hospitalized. The child had vomited and a piece of food became lodged in his airway, a Florida Department of Children and Families report states.

He was discharged on Dec. 7 but had to be rushed back to the hospital that same day. On his return, Flythe told doctors at the hospital that the boy had a seizure and was unresponsive, hospital records show.

Flythe is a mother of two children, who were age 15 and 11 at the time she applied to become a foster mom at the beginning of 2016. The children are now with a family friend, according to her uncle, Richard Stackhouse.

Aedyn Agminalis, seen in this undated photo, was described as unresponsive when he was rushed to the hospital. He died on Dec. 11.

Aedyn Agminalis, seen in this undated photo, was described as unresponsive when he was rushed to the hospital. He died on Dec. 11. Courtesy of Colleen Kochanek

He described his niece as a kind, respectful woman and said she was being made a scapegoat because the child welfare system had failed the foster child who, he said, had medical issues.

“There’s no way in the world I would believe Latamara would do that,” Stackhouse said. “She’s someone who thinks she can fix the world with a foster care child.”

Flythe, who is divorced, moved to Florida from Virginia about seven years ago. She qualified to be a foster mother in June by passing a background check and taking a 21-hour professional parenting class, according to a DCF report.

Her arrest record lists Children’s Home Network as her employer. Its website states that she worked as its marketing and communications manager.

She was approved as a foster parent by child-placing agency A Door of Hope, a subcontractor of Eckerd Kids, the agency that runs child welfare services in Hillsborough County.

“This case is devastating to us and the hundreds of foster families and social workers who work tirelessly on a daily basis to protect and support children involved in our child welfare system,” said Eckerd spokeswoman Adrienne Drew. “We are fully committed to working with all authorities as the case progresses.”

Aedyn was taken into foster care in September after a child protective investigator visited his home because of a report made to the state’s child abuse hotline.

The investigator found feces on the floor and was also concerned that a hookah pipe and other dangerous objects were within reach of the boy, Healton said. There was also concern that the boy was malnourished.

Healton, the biological mother, said the child was in no danger and that she planned to steam-clean the carpet that night. She and her husband, Brynn Agminalis, had been unable to get the boy to eat solid food and he frequently took his diaper off and defecated on the floor.

They said the foster care system had failed their son.

“Child protective services is supposed to stop this happening,” Healton said. “An innocent life was lost because they couldn’t do their job.”

Healton and Agminalis had agreed to put the child up for adoption and on Nov. 18 signed papers consenting to Aedyn being adopted by Colleen Kochanek and her wife, Stephanie Norris, a North Carolina couple.

The couple were trying to get a placement court hearing that would have allowed them to take Aedyn home even before the adoption was finalized. Had all gone according to plan, the boy likely would have spent Christmas with his new parents.

“I kind of expected this but I’m still shocked,” said Kochanek. “I thought I would feel some satisfaction but he’s still gone. If this is the person that really hurt him, I want them to be held accountable.”

Contact Christopher O’Donnell at codonnell@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3446. Follow @codonnell_Times.

Foster mom arrested in death of boy headed for adoption 02/27/17 [Last modified: Tuesday, February 28, 2017 10:31am]
Photo reprints | Article reprints

© 2017 Tampa Bay Times

Foster mom of 4-year-old dropped off at wrong house says she alerted child welfare

Patricia Hunter has opened her home to children for more than 20 years.

As a foster mom, she’s dealt with bed wetters and fussy eaters, kids who need endless hugs and others who don’t want to be held.

Until last week, she hadn’t experienced having one of her children delivered to the wrong home.

Hunter, 61, was the foster mom of the 4-year-old girl dropped at the wrong house by a Camelot Community Care driver on Jan. 23. That night, she said, she called the lead child welfare agency to report that the girl had not arrived. Nonetheless, she feels she has been indirectly blamed for an incident that was not her fault.

“This has become a nightmare,” she said. “I got a bad rap for sitting here waiting for my kid.”

The child, whom Hunter knows as Ty, was dropped off at RaSheeda Yates’ east Tampa home about 7:45 p.m. The driver had put the wrong address into his GPS and was later fired for the mistake.

Two miles away, Hunter was at home caring for two other foster kids and was waiting for Ty. She had a plate of spaghetti ready.

Ty would normally arrive between 7:30 and 8 p.m. after spending the day at a day care center. The minivan carrying her and other kids typically has to make a lot of stops to drop kids off at different foster homes, Hunter said.

As the evening went on and Ty did not arrive, Hunter wondered if she was visiting with her biological mother or her siblings. Visits are sometimes scheduled on short notice, she said.

When it got to 9 p.m., she began to get worried. She waited another 30 minutes and then called the placement office of Eckerd Kids, the lead child welfare agency in Hillsborough County.

They thought she already had the child and said they would look into it, she said.

Finally, some time after 10 p.m., a Tampa police officer knocked on her door and told her that Ty had been dropped at the wrong house. She was told the Camelot driver was new to the job.

“It was scary, unnerving to me,” she said. “Anyone can make a mistake but this is dangerous.”

She threw a house dress over her pajamas, loaded her two other foster kids into her black pickup truck and went to get Ty.

Just days after the incident, Eckerd transferred Ty to a new foster home.

Even before the girl was misplaced, Hunter said she had already requested that Ty be moved. The girl, who was separated from her siblings, was very distressed and needed to be in a home where she could get more one-on-one care, Hunter said. The girl cried every day and would frequently crawl up on Hunter’s lap, wanting to be held.

The girl’s initial reluctance to go home with her is common among foster kids, Hunter said.

“They look at me as the bad guy because I can’t give them to their mom,” she said.

Eckerd declined to comment on why the child was moved to a different foster home.

Yates, the 37-year-old mother of four who looked after Ty for several hours, received a thank-you card from Eckerd for her good deed.

She said her heart went out to the little girl who is pining for her mother. She considered adoption, but is aware that the mother, who is homeless, is trying to regain custody.

“I told her I would help her as much as I could,” Yates said.

Contact Christopher O’Donnell at codonnell@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3446. Follow @codonnell_Times.

Foster mom of 4-year-old dropped off at wrong house says she alerted child welfare 02/02/17 [Last modified: Thursday, February 2, 2017 9:22pm]
Photo reprints | Article reprints

© 2017 Tampa Bay Times

Report highlights DCF woes but way forward less clear

Christina Spudeas

Christina Spudeas

Florida child welfare workers too often remove children from their families without first providing counseling that could have kept them in the home, a recent federal study found.

And once in the state’s care, some children don’t get physical therapy and other specialized services they need and are entitled to, the report stated.

Florida Department of Children and Families and federal officials met last week to discuss the findings and begin work on a plan to tackle the shortcomings identified in the report. It came in a week when a Miami teenager in a foster home live-streamed her suicide on social media and a Hillsborough County child care agency dropped off a 4-year-old foster girl at the wrong home.

The federal Children and Family Services Review has once again thrown a spotlight on the state’s child welfare system and raised questions about funding levels and whether the privatization of child welfare is working.

Child welfare agencies say they have done yeoman’s work running a system that has received only marginal funding increases during the eight years since the Great Recession. Funding has risen in the past two years, but that has coincided with an uptick in the number of children being taken into care, they say.

To fully meet the needs of the almost 36,000 children now either in foster care or under the watch of the state would take an extra $100 million annually, said

DCF Secretary Mike Carroll

DCF Secretary Mike Carroll

Kurt Kelly, a former state lawmaker and chief executive officer of the Florida Coalition for Children, a statewide association that represents community-based care agencies

“We have to right-size this system of care and get extra resources so we can provide these services for these children and families,” he said.

But others who work in the foster care system are skeptical that funding is the only problem. Contracts with care agencies were negotiated when the number of children under the watch of the state was well above 40,000. Agencies now care for fewer children but are still not meeting national standards.

“I’m not saying there aren’t gaps in funding, but I’m still concerned that when you fail on so many standards there should be an alarm that goes off,” said Christina Spudeas, executive director of Florida’s Children First, a statewide advocacy organization focused on children’s rights. “I would be very surprised if the entire answer is funding.”

Child welfare was privatized by state lawmakers over a period of several years, a process completed in 2005. DCF now contracts with 17 “lead” agencies to manage and run foster placement and case management in 20 districts known as circuits across the state.

Attorney Howard M. Talenfeld, right, talks to reporters as Gina Alexis, left, mother of 14-year-old Naika Venant, who livestreamed her suicide on Facebook, weeps and Stacie J. Schmerling, left, looks on, during a news conference Wednesday in Plantation. The tragedy occurred the same week DCF and federal officials met  to discuss the findings of a critical report of the agency and begin work on a plan to tackle the shortcomings identified.  [Associated Press]

Attorney Howard M. Talenfeld, right, talks to reporters as Gina Alexis, left, mother of 14-year-old Naika Venant, who livestreamed her suicide on Facebook, weeps and Stacie J. Schmerling, left, looks on, during a news conference Wednesday in Plantation. The tragedy occurred the same week DCF and federal officials met to discuss the findings of a critical report of the agency and begin work on a plan to tackle the shortcomings identified. [Associated Press]

Direct funding from DCF to those agencies totals $628 million this year — a $14 million increase over last year, DCF figures show.

Lead care agencies are required by law to subcontract some services through other care agencies. The result is that the state dollars also have to go toward several layers of CEOs and executives who run those agencies.

“The report itself is very alarming and causes us to question if it’s a lack of funding or a lack of oversight of the way the dollars are being spent,” Spudeas said.

The increases in lead agency funding since 2016 ended an eight-year stretch in which annual funding remained flat at $588 million. Adjusted for inflation, that amounted to a 13 percent cut, according to Florida Tax Watch. The agencies do not get more money if there is a spike in the number of children in foster care.

As recently as 2014, case managers were juggling an average of 22 children, well above DCF’s standard of 14, according to the Florida Coalition for Children. High workload coupled with low pay resulted in many case managers quitting.

Turnover averaged 37 percent and in some communities was as high as 80 percent, according to a 2015 Florida TaxWatch study funded by the Florida Coalition for Children. Providing time for new case mangers to get up to speed often means children stay longer in the foster care system.

The report called for more front-end investment in services such as Healthy Families Florida, a nonprofit group that provides counseling and other in-home services to families to prevent children being taken into care.

“We only ask the state to pay more where we can get better results,” said TaxWatch CEO Dominic Callabro. “You may have to pay a little bit now to avoid paying a hell of a lot more later.”

Among the issues the report raised is a shortage of services provided in rural areas and cases where children and families did not get counseling, anger management and other services to tackle issues like domestic and substance abuse.

“We have a particular problem with heroin in some jurisdictions, which has made it a particular problem to leave kids in the home,” DCF Secretary Mike Carroll told federal officials at last week’s meeting. “We’ve had trouble keeping up.”

In its legislative budget request, DCF’s priorities include cost-of-living increases for foster homes and reducing case loads.

“We need to hold all parts of the system of care accountable for performing at the level we expect and we’re absolutely committed to continue working towards positive outcomes for every family we serve,” said spokeswoman Jessica Sims.

Contact Christopher O’Donnell at codonnell@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3446. Follow @codonnell_Times.



Florida child welfare system under-performing for foster kids, study finds

TAMPA — A federal agency has given the Florida Department of Children and Families 90 days to come up with a plan to improve its care of foster kids after a study found the state is underperforming in critical areas.

The “Children and Family Services Review” analyzed the DCF’s handling of 80 foster care cases from April 1 to Sept. 30. In more than half of those cases, child welfare agencies removed children from homes without first providing appropriate services and were lax in following safety plans, the report states.

Florida also is struggling to provide counseling and therapy for every foster kid who needs them.

Overall, the DCF’s performance was rated as needing improvement in 11 of 14 categories. The report was compiled by the Children’s Bureau, part of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

It also found the DCF lacking in how well children are protected from abuse while under the state’s watch and whether they have stable lives while in foster care. In some cases, the agency did not meet deadlines for initiating investigations of reported child abuse.

“This holds up a light to the people in the state and helps us see how our agency is doing,” said Robin Rosenberg, deputy director of Florida’s Children First, a statewide advocacy organization focused on children’s rights. “For so many areas to be falling below standard is a wakeup call.”

Child welfare in Florida was privatized by state lawmakers over a period of several years through 2005. The DCF contracts with 17 different “lead” agencies to manage and run foster placement and case management in 20 districts known as circuits across the state. Lead agencies subcontract with other local care providers.

As a result of the review, the DCF has scheduled a conference with agencies and other stakeholders from across the state on Tuesday to come up with ways to reform the child welfare system. The ideas generated will go into an improvement plan that will be submitted to the Children’s Bureau before any federal decision on whether the DCF should face financial penalties.

“DCF takes these findings very seriously and we will work aggressively with the community-based care lead agencies to improve each item that was cited as not in substantial conformity,” said DCF spokeswoman Jessica Sims. “Providing adequate services to families in times of need is an essential element to ensuring child safety and restoring families, and we are fully committed to that goal.”

Among other concerns highlighted by the report are that some foster kids do not receive the physical therapy, counseling and other specialized services they need. That was true in one quarter of 67 applicable cases included in the review.

That was not a surprise to Rosemary Armstrong, executive director of Crossroads for Florida Kids, who said she sometimes has problems getting specialized therapy for children she represents who have behavioral issues or who need grief counseling. Crossroads provides pro bono legal representation for children in the foster care system.

Another concern is that children who have finished sentences in Department of Juvenile Justice commitment programs re-enter the foster care system with no clothes, she said.

“It takes so long to get clothing for the child,” Armstrong said. “They need clothes for school and they need it right away.”

Sims said that the DCF has provided more funding for lead agencies to hire additional case managers and provide better services and also to hire extra child protection investigators.

Still, the state has struggled to keep pace in recent years as the number of children being taken into care has risen, said Tabitha Lambert, circuit director for the guardian ad litem program in Hillsborough County.

“There’s a high turnover in case management organizations and a lot of those needs may fall through the cracks,” she said. “We have to take this information and see how we can improve the system.”

Contact Christopher O’Donnell at codonnell@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3446. Follow @codonnell_Times.

Florida child welfare system under-performing for foster kids, study finds 01/20/17 [Last modified: Friday, January 20, 2017 7:53am]


Bob Opsahl crossed a line, changed lives forever

WFTV-Channel 9 anchors Martie Salt and Bob Opsahl in the station's newsroom on May 13, 2016.As journalists, we are taught to be objective. Our instincts tell us not to cross that line between our professional and personal lives. Fair and balanced, without all the conflicted connotations that now brings.

Bob Opsahl failed miserably at that.

He tried to keep his emotions tucked away, all in one tidy box. No feelings. Nothing to see here. It was impossible.

Those kids kept tugging at him. Abused, neglected, forgotten. They were throwaways, for different reasons. Lousy parents. Indifferent caregivers. Their own bad manners, and sometimes even violent tendencies.

Many of those kids had built up walls to protect themselves. It was such a conflicted universe. Don’t trust adults because they will always break your heart. Please love me because I need a mommy and daddy.

Opsahl brought those sad, lonely, tormented kids into your homes every week, hosting a news segment called “Wednesday’s Child” for 25 years on WFTV-Channel 9. The stories highlighted individual children from foster care who were available for adoption.

“They were Wednesday’s children because in many cases they had been neglected, abused or abandoned,” Opsahl said. “I noticed that most of them were very eager to develop a relationship with a caring adult.

“One little girl, she was probably about 8. She and her little brother were out at the playground, and we had been playing for a while. We were just having fun. It wasn’t very long, maybe an hour or so later, that she started calling me daddy.

“That grabs you by the heart and really doesn’t let you go.”

Over those years, Opsahl helped more than 500 children find adoptive homes. Bravo. But this is where things get personal. His heart started doing the talking.

Through the eyes of these children, Opsahl saw what they desperately craved:

Stability. Warmth. Trust. Compassion. Love.

Opsahl and his then-wife started thinking about adopting some of the children. It didn’t happen right away, but Opsahl never let go of those kids.

So he and his wife eventually worked their way into the picture. You didn’t see it on TV, but they moved quietly and efficiently.

First came a little girl. An infant through a private adoption. They called her Rachael.

Seven years later came a boy. Another infant through a private adoption. They called him Jordan.

They weren’t just Wednesday’s children. They were his children. Every day of the week.

They were no different than all those little ones and big ones whom he helped find forever homes for over the years.

Opsahl had a distinguished career as a journalist in Central Florida after graduating from UCF in 1976 with a degree in communications.

You should know him by now, unless you don’t own a TV. He was the longest-serving anchor in Orlando TV history, joining Channel 9 Eyewitness news team in 1978 as a general assignment reporter before becoming an anchor in 1980. He retired earlier this year, and you may find him enjoying those perks on a golf course somewhere near you.

“I like it a lot.” he says, “and thinking of sticking with it.”

But before walking away, Opsahl became part of the story. He changed his life — and the lives of two children — forever.

Rachael is now 33, and recently gave birth to another grandchild. Jordan is 26 and still living at home.

The kids always knew they were adopted. No family secrets. Their parents even read them a book, “Why Was I Adopted?” at bedtime, putting a positive spin on the adoptive process.

There’s no shame in that. No stigma. It was all a good thing.

Opsahl was recently honored by a statewide group, Florida’s Children First, that advances the rights of children in foster care. Opsahl received the “Media Advocate of the Year Award,” one of those lifetime-achievement deals that was well-deserved.

Opsahl has done much good in this world. All of Wednesday’s children agree with those sentiments, and will be forever grateful. But Opsahl has much to thank them for as well.

They opened his eyes, and his heart, forevermore.

Septeber 26, 2016


Read George Diaz‘s blog at OrlandoSentinel.com/enfuego


Original Article

Youth Efficacy/Empowerment Scale – Mental Health & Youth Participation in Planning Scale Packet – English & Spanish

This packet contains introductory information about two scales meant to help you measure youth empowerment and participation.  The Youth Efficacy/Empowerment Scale – Mental Health was designed to assess youth perceptions of efficacy with respect to managing their mental health conditions as well as utilizing services and supports.  The Youth Participation in Planning Scale assesses youth perceptions of their own meaningful participation in the team planning process.

English Version          Spanish Version

Best Practices for Increasing Meaningful Youth Participation in Collaborative Team Planning

This brief offers tips to increase meaningful youth participation in collaborative team planning meetings.

Access Document Here

“During Meetings I Can’t Stand It When…” A Guide for Facilitators and Team Members – English & Spanish

This tip sheet helps meeting facilitators and team members address common issues that occur during team meetings in order to promote meaningful youth participation.

English Version          Spanish Version

Tips for Your Team Meetings: A Guide for Youth – English & Spanish

This tip sheet offers suggestions and strategies to help young people become more involved in their team planning meetings.

English Version       Spanish Version

Carlton: Why are so many Hillsborough kids in foster care?

How kids wind up in the foster care system is pretty much the same across Florida.

Investigators look into allegations of parents who are angry, absent, in trouble or just unable to do the job of parenting. They look into reports of children who are not being cared for, neglected, hurt or worse.

But according to a recent report by the Tampa Bay Times’ Christopher O’Donnell, Hillsborough County moves more of those children from their homes and into safe shelter than any other county in the state. That’s 1,672 in the last fiscal year, with kids going into foster care 14 times for every 100 investigations. That’s compared to a state rate of eight in 100.

What gives?

Like a lot of questions about our labyrinthine, underfunded and sometimes inadequate child welfare system, actual answers are tough to nail down.

Lawyers in the trenches will tell you that while there is often clear justification for taking a child out of a bad situation, in some borderline cases, officials may be doing so to play it safe.

It should go without saying that no kid should be yanked from his family, his room, his friends and his things and dropped into the foster care system without credible evidence. But given horror stories we read about children who end up hurt or killed because the system knew about them but did not protect them, could you blame an urge to err on the side of caution?

What a balancing act that must be, deciding that a child will be okay where he is. Probably.

But if there is evidence of children being systematically and unnecessarily removed in an abundance of caution, let’s have it. It’s worth noting this safeguard: Taking a child is approved by a judge. Only one Hillsborough case among hundreds was reversed this year.

Another factor to consider: Most counties use staffers contracted by the Department of Children and Families to investigate allegations to the state abuse hotline. But six, including Hillsborough, Pinellas and Pasco, use local sheriff’s offices — and five of those counties remove kids at a higher rate than statewide.

Do judges give more credibility to a law enforcement connection?

Should they?

Here is one theory that makes sense to me: Nearly a quarter of Hillsborough kids live in poverty, a population that stretches from Tampa’s hardscrabble urban core to the county’s far-flung rural corners. This, people in the system will tell you, makes getting social services everywhere they’re needed a challenge.

You can’t miss the fallout from all this. Dozens of kids ended up sleeping in offices recently because there were no foster care beds for them. And here is one seriously sad statistic: While 80 percent of children in the system statewide had a guardian ad litem to act as their advocate and their voice in court, only 55 percent of kids in Hillsborough do. And what these volunteer guardians do is invaluable, representing not parents or the DCF, but what’s best for the child — down to getting them counseling or making sure they have visits with their siblings. They are lifelines, and there are not enough of them.

Beyond the numbers is the reality of too many kids in a system unprepared — and elected officials who should care enough to address this before the next round of headlines.

Sue Carlton can be reached at carlton@tampabay.com.

Carlton: Why are so many Hillsborough kids in foster care? 08/09/16 [Last modified: Tuesday, August 9, 2016 9:06pm]
Original Article
© 2016 Tampa Bay Times

Before child vanished — maybe forever — DCF made fateful decision

Angela Dufrene, when she was an infant

Angela Dufrene, when she was an infant

When Angela Dufrene and her twin brother were born on April 25, 2014, their mother’s troubled history was no secret to the state.

Marjorie Dufrene was under the supervision of Florida’s child welfare agency following a child-abuse arrest and six separate investigations, including an episode in which she “accidentally” hit one child in the face with a belt with such force that he required eye surgery.

While Dufrene’s two oldest children remained under the state’s protection, she became pregnant again — with twins.

Despite her history, child welfare administrators decided to leave the twins in their mother’s care with no protective oversight, even as the agency received additional complaints about possible abuse of their older siblings.

Now, Angela has vanished altogether — and is feared dead.

As Miami homicide detectives search for the missing child, or her remains, just-released Department of Children & Families records renew troubling questions about the agency’s oversight of at-risk children. The records are heavily redacted and incomplete, but show child protection workers and lawyers deliberately chose not to monitor the twins’ safety.

It was not until last month that a DCF investigator, probing the family’s 11th child-abuse hotline report, involving an unidentified child, discovered that Angela’s mother could account for only four of her five children. At first, Dufrene claimed the baby was with her birth father, something investigators quickly determined was a lie.

And then came a shocking disclosure:

“The mother admitted to murdering child Angela in November of 2015,” a report said. She would also state in open court that the youngster was “no longer with us.” The report added that “Angela would not stop crying.”

Both DCF and the Miami Police Department are investigating what became of Angela, a cherubic baby whose life, if it is over, left virtually no record. Police had to search several days before finding a single photo of the child. An age-progressed image of the girl shows a dark-eyed youngster with pig tails.

Despite the word “murder” appearing in DCF reports, law-enforcement sources say that Dufrene actually gave various versions of the baby’s death, including one that the child suffered a fatal fall after which the mom discarded her body in a North Miami-Dade dumpster, sources said.

Last month, when authorities discovered Angela was missing, DCF removed her twin brother from Dufrene. Her three older children remain in Broward County with their father. Dufrene has not been charged with a crime.

In the days after DCF discovered Angela was missing, a DCF spokeswoman, Jessica Sims, told the Herald “DCF has no prior reports to the hotline regarding the child” — other than the tip that resulted in the discovery of her disappearance.

But heavily redacted documents provided to the Herald under the state’s public records law show that Angela was known to child protection caseworkers and lawyers in Broward County, who had overseen the welfare of her older siblings.

In an interview with the Herald late Monday, DCF Secretary Mike Carroll declined to discuss Angela’s case in detail, saying state law prohibits such disclosures until the child is formally presumed to be deceased. “Based on some comments the mom made in open court, we have grave concerns about this child. I hope what she said is not true.”

He acknowledged, however, that child protection administrators who met in April 2014 erred by failing to add Angela, her twin, and one other sibling to the ongoing court case in which Marjorie Dufrene’s two oldest children were under state supervision. Present at the meeting were employees of ChildNet, the Broward County foster care agency; the Broward Sheriff’s Office, which conducts abuse probes; and the Florida attorney general’s office, which provides legal representation in child welfare court in Broward.

“If the older children were not safe, how in the world can a newborn be safe?” Carroll said. “It defies logic.”

When lawyers and caseworkers decline to add newborns such as Angela to ongoing child protection court cases, Carroll said, “the chances of that child becoming invisible in the future increase exponentially.”

Carroll said he’s asked his staff to look into whether the agency needs to change state law, or just revise rules and policy, to mandate that infants born into families already under state supervision be added to such court cases as a matter of course. “We have to close that loop,” Carroll said.

On Monday, the Herald petitioned the child welfare judge who is overseeing Marjorie Dufrene’s family, Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Cindy Lederman, to order DCF to release all records in its custody pertaining to the agency’s prior involvement with Angela and her siblings. The petition said Floridians have an interest in understanding “how these tragedies occur and learning about possible performance shortcomings by the department, the courts or others.”

Carroll said the agency would not object to the records’ release.

Twice — in April 2014 and June 2015, after complaints involving the older siblings — DCF had opportunities to ensure Angela and her twin brother were safe. Both times, records show, they failed to take any action. And investigators had a previous chance to discover she was missing a month earlier when yet another report was received by the hotline, alleging the sexual abuse of a sibling. Typically, investigators are expected to observe all children in a family if one of them is alleged to have been mistreated.

Marjorie Dufrene’s two oldest children — now 11 and 5 — had been the subject of at least three reports of physical child abuse in 2011 and 2012 when the Broward Sheriff’s Office sheltered them for a while from their parents.

The children’s removal appears to correspond with Marjorie Dufrene’s December 2012 arrest by the Fort Lauderdale Police Department on charges of battery on a child. A police report said one of Dufrene’s children complained she had “hit [him] on the head, causing a cut and a bruise. Marjorie has had previous [abuse] reports filed against her, and is not allowed to physically discipline her children.”

The child “confirmed under oath that his mother struck him, causing the injuries to his head. [A] medical exam showed positive indications of abuse,” the report added.

Documents provided to the Herald are so heavily censored that it is nearly impossible to determine what happened next.

What is known: On April 4, 2014, 11 days before Angela and her brother were born, BSO, the state Attorney General’s Office and ChildNet held a meeting to decide whether to take any action to protect the twins after they were born. Blacked-out notes on a timeline show that “no legal action was requested” at the staffing, and it appears none was taken.

At least five times in the coming months, a Broward County judge held hearings to ensure that Dufrene’s older children remained safe and well-cared for. While timelines provided to the Herald are not explicit about what occurred during those hearings, typically, a caseworker will describe what she or he observed during monthly home visits. No such observations ever were made of the twins, however, as they never were added to the court case.

On Dec. 7, 2015 — a month after Marjorie Dufrene now says her baby died — the Broward court case was terminated.

DCF received at least five subsequent reports of abuse or neglect — including allegations of domestic violence, physical abuse, sexual abuse and “threatened harm” — before July 20, when the hotline received an anonymous tip that some of Dufrene’s children were not being properly supervised, and were being exposed to “environmental hazards.”

Last month, a DCF assistant secretary, Vicki Abrams, asked a Broward administrator to tell her how two babies could escape agency oversight when their older — and thus less vulnerable — siblings were being observed by a caseworker who regularly reported back to a judge. “Call me when you get info on why twins not added,” Abrams wrote on July 21.

“We have seen one of the children, and Mother confessed to murdering the other child,” Abrams wrote.

Angela is not the first child to vanish after child protection workers had become involved. In a case that shocked South Florida and the nation, 4-year-old Rilya Wilson disappeared around December 2000 after DCF placed her in the home of a family friend, Geralyn Graham. A caseworker reported making numerous visits to Graham’s home — visits that never took place — until April 2002, when another worker, seeking to put Rilya up for adoption, discovered the girl was gone.

During a 2012 trial, Graham’s companion described the abuses to which Rilya had been subjected. She told jurors that Graham would bind the child’s hands to a bed railing with plastic “flex cuffs.” She said Graham borrowed a dog cage to confine Rilya.

A jailhouse informant testified that Graham confessed to smothering the child with a pillow, then dumping her body in a canal or lake.

Despite the absence of a body, Graham was convicted of aggravated child abuse and kidnapping, and was sentenced to 55 years imprisonment.

The remains of Rilya, who would be 19 today, have never been found.

US Department of Education: New Foster Care Transition Toolkit Offers Tips for Helping Foster Youth Succeed as Adults

The U.S. Department of Education today released a new toolkit to inspire and support current and former foster youth pursuing college and career opportunities. The Foster Care Transition Toolkit includes tips and resources intended to help foster youth access and navigate social, emotional, educational and skills barriers as they transition into adulthood.

Currently, there are over 400,000 children and youth in America’s foster care system and every year, more than 23,000 youth age out of the system, never having found the security of a permanent home.

“Many foster youth lack stable residences and strong support structures and face tremendous barriers,” said U.S. Secretary of Education John B. King Jr. “This toolkit offers practical tips on navigating those challenges – with education as the foundation.”

“For so many students, higher education can be a ticket to the middle class, but young people who have spent time in or are aging out of the foster care system face systemic barriers that can make it difficult to apply, attend, and graduate from college,” said U.S. Sen. Patty Murray. “In Congress, I have been working on ways to break down barriers for foster youth from early childhood to higher education, and I’m glad to see the Department take this positive step to ensure foster youth get the information, resources, and supports they need to succeed in college and in life.”

The Education Department recognizes that a high-quality education can help support foster youth achieve life success despite past experiences with abuse, neglect, separation and other barriers.

The toolkit is aimed at helping youth in foster care and those who have aged out of the system successfully move into adulthood, continue to postsecondary education and set out on a career with personal fulfillment. Readers will find advice on:

  • Financial aid and money management.
  • Mentoring opportunities.
  • Job and career support.
  • Health care resources.
  • Transportation options. And,
  • Housing and food benefits.

In addition, the toolkit includes numerous examples of existing efforts that assist foster youth, including:

  • A toolkit developed by FosterClub that helps define goals, build a support team, identify resources, refine skills, and map out a plan for post-foster care life.
  • A map of states with tuition waivers and vouchers for current and former foster youth and a list of foster care independent programs available nationwide.
  • Information on Talent Search, Upward Bound and Gear Up, which provide extracurricular activities that can help expose foster youth to collegiate life and make their applications more attractive to colleges and universities.
  • Guidance on how to build a resume, information on career-oriented training programs and a list of community based resources helpful in applying for a job. And,
  • A list of mentoring organizations such as Big Brothers Big Sisters of America, Boys and Girls Clubs of America and the My Brother’s Keeper Program.

While the toolkit is written for foster youth, it’s also meant to be a resource for caseworkers, care givers, teachers and mentors to help foster youth realize their dreams.

The Foster Care Transition Toolkit was designed by the U.S. Department of Education, in partnership with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, the U.S. Department of Transportation, the U.S. Department of Labor, and incorporates input from practitioners and current and former foster youth.It was released as a part ofNational Foster Care Month and in conjunction with the first ever White House Foster Care & Technology Hackathon.

The Hackathon brought together child welfare leaders, non-profit organizations, philanthropies, and foster care families and alumni, as well as engineers, technologists, and other leaders from the technology sector to “hack” innovative solutions for some of our most pressing issues in the foster care system.

The toolkit will be distributed through social media, foster care groups, advocates, teachers, school counselors and other stakeholders.


US Dept. of Education, Press Office: (202) 401-1576, press@ed.gov


Original Article

Carlton: Foster kids deserve more than makeshift

It’s not the worst story we’ve heard about how abused or neglected children taken from their homes are treated once they’re in the system. Sadly, it’s not even close.

But kids sleeping on air mattresses in offices because there are no foster beds — because there’s nowhere else for them to go — is not okay. It’s not okay even in Florida, with our abysmal record for how we treat kids who need help the most.

Earlier this month, Times reporter Christopher O’Donnell reported that 17 Hillsborough County children — mostly teens, but at least one as young as 11 — slept in an office and a teen rec center for a night or two after being taken from their homes because of abuse, neglect or domestic violence.

Eckerd Kids, the nonprofit that contracts with the state Department of Children and Families and is paid $70 million a year in Hillsborough, said there were no beds available. An Eckerd official attributed this in part to a surge in the number of kids taken in during April and May — an indeed eyebrow-raising increase of nearly 40 percent.

Yes, the improvised accommodations were better than nothing. And yes, these kids were fed, and had pillows, blankets and adult supervision.

But child welfare experts will tell you that makeshift is no way to treat a child in crisis. Plucked out of bad circumstances, these kids need secure, homelike settings as soon as we can make it happen.

Still, it sounded like a self-contained problem, maybe an aberration because of that high spike in numbers.

“We do not foresee ever going down that road again,” Eckerd Kids’ director of operations Lorita Shirley told the Times, except they already had.

As is tradition with stories of child welfare in Florida, the numbers — and the problem — grew from the initial reports.

As O’Donnell reported this week, it turns out that 43 kids have slept in unlicensed quarters over the past 18 months — several who were 10 or younger, and one who was only 4.

DCF called Eckerd’s placement of them “inappropriate,” and the failure to fully report the situation “inexcusable and absolutely unacceptable.”

These are words we have heard before.

The executive director of Eckerd’s Community Alternatives program resigned, or fell on her sword.

We’ve heard that before, too.

You do have to feel for people working on the front lines here and making do if there is truly nowhere else for these kids to go. You also have to feel the frustration of those who have raised flags about an underfunded, dysfunctional child welfare system for years.

About that spike in the number of kids coming into the system: Some speculate it could be a reaction to reports like the devastating Miami Herald series, Innocents Lost, chronicling children who died even after the state was warned they could be in danger.

Or maybe the jump can be attributed to something as simple as the end of the school year, with people calling the hotline worried about children headed home for the summer and into potentially dangerous circumstances.

Whatever the reason, officials here and in Tallahassee need to find a way to accommodate the need. Before we’re reading this story again, or worse.

Sue Carlton can be reached at carlton@tampabay.com.

Original Article

Seven-month-old Tampa girl dies while in state care

A 7-month-old baby girl in the care of the state died this week after she slept next to a 10-year-old child on a couch.

Her name was Miracle.

Miracle Collins was taken into care in February when her mother was arrested in her east Tampa home after a report of domestic violence, a Tampa Police Department report states.

The child was placed with a friend of her mother’s by Florida Department of Children and Families contractor Eckerd Kids.

But Tampa Fire Rescue was called to the child’s temporary home Tuesday after the 10-year-old woke to find the baby unresponsive. Paramedics tried to revive the infant but were unsuccessful.

DCF has assigned a critical incident team to investigate the death, a step mandated by state law whenever a child dies while under the state’s watch.

Officials from Eckerd declined to comment on specifics of the case while the investigation is ongoing.

“Losing a baby to co-sleeping is heartbreaking,” said Terri Durdeller, an Eckerd spokeswoman. “An unsafe sleep environment is one of the leading causes of preventable child deaths across the country, and Eckerd Kids has always made it a priority to educate families and children in our care on how to avoid this tragedy.”

Miracle’s mother, Rolanda Angelique Cusseaux, 35, was arrested Feb. 15 by Tampa police officers in the 2000 block of 25th Avenue E on a domestic battery charge.

She had been fighting with her boyfriend, Mederick Collins, identified as Miracle’s father in the report.

Police handcuffed and arrested Cusseaux after she shoved Collins in their presence. An investigation of Collins’ actions was referred to the State Attorney’s Office.

Police officers called DCF because Miracle, who was then just two months old, was in the apartment.

The report states she was given to Cusseaux’s friend, Tarshemia Martin, to care for until Cusseaux was released. It is unclear whether Miracle was transferred to another caregiver before her death.

In their report, officers described conditions in Cusseaux’s apartment as deplorable.

“The floors were covered in stains and what appeared to be food and other things,” the report states. “I noticed roaches throughout the front room and kitchen area. The kitchen was filthy and unkempt.”

A woman who answered the door of Cusseaux’s apartment Friday burst into tears when a Times reporter identified himself. She said she did not want to talk.

Children in the care of the state are routinely placed with non-relatives as an alternative to foster parents and residential centers. Over the past 12 months, 446 non-relatives have provided care for children in Hillsborough County, according to Eckerd Kids. Of those, 370 provided care for at least 90 days.

One-third of those caregivers did not seek financial assistance that the state makes available.

DCF officials said when non-relatives are given care of children, an on-site check is made of the home to make sure it is clean and safe. Background checks are conducted to look for a history of criminal, delinquency and abuse or neglect. That is followed by fingerprinting of all adults in the house.

A case manager or other services provider should have face-to-face contact with the child at least once a week, officials said.

In addition, the Rilya Wilson Act, named after a Miami 4-year-old whom the DCF lost track of for two years, requires that children in care be enrolled in daily early education or child-care programs.

The DCF investigation will determine if those rules were followed in Miracle’s case.

The placing of children with non-relatives has pros and cons, said Robin Rosenberg, deputy director of Florida’s Children First, a statewide advocacy organization focused on children’s rights.

For older children, it can mean staying with adults they know and trust.

But many of the caregivers need help applying for financial support and Medicaid, she said.

“It can be a wonderful thing or it can have bad results if they’re not adequately supported to take care of the child,” Rosenberg said. “Sometimes it imposes on really well-intended people but doesn’t give them adequate support.”

Contact Christopher O’Donnell at codonnell@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3446. Follow@codonnell_Times.

Original Article

Nonprofit admits more children in state care were forced to sleep in offices than previously acknowledged

Air mattresses placed on office floors served as make-do sleeping quarters for dozens of Hillsborough County foster children, a crisis that the contractor responsible for taking care of the children repeatedly failed to report to the state.

The Clearwater nonprofit Eckerd Kids had 43 children sleep in offices and other unlicensed locations in the past 18 months because it could not place them in foster homes, an internal Eckerd report released Tuesday states.

The crisis came to a head during a three-month period ending in June when 38 children spent up to three nights in offices and a teen recreation center — more than twice as many children as Eckerd officials initially reported to the Florida Department of Children and Families.

Six of the children were 10 years old or younger. One was just 4.

DCF Secretary Mike Carroll said the department has deployed an oversight team to conduct daily monitoring and onsite visits of Eckerd to ensure there is no repeat of the recent problems.

“Eckerd’s inappropriate placement of these children, and other failure to report these incidents, is inexcusable and absolutely unacceptable,” Carroll said in a statement.

Eckerd is paid $70 million annually from its contract with DCF.

Its procedures required staff to report to Eckerd’s director of out-of-home care, an executive director and to the chief of operations when a foster bed could not be found for a child.

It also required them to report the case to DCF within 24 hours.

Sometimes, only some of the officials were notified, the report found. Sometimes, no one was told.

As a result of those failures, Rachel Smith, the executive director of Eckerd’s Community Alternatives program, resigned her position Tuesday, Eckerd officials said.

Smith, who did not return calls seeking comment, was scheduled to be appointed by Hillsborough County commissioners today to the Blue Ribbon Commission for Child Safety in Hills­borough County. Her name was withdrawn from the agenda on Tuesday.

Eckerd’s report also reveals the housing crisis dates back to July 2015, when five children over five nights slept in offices.

Makeshift accommodation was needed this year, Eckerd officials said, because of a spike in the number of children being taken into care in April and May.

The decision to remove kids is made by the Child Protective Investigative Division, a unit of the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office. The children are frequently traumatized because of issues like abuse, neglect or domestic violence.

The division removed roughly 180 children in both April and May compared to 116 in March and 115 in June.

In the 12-month period ending June 30, 1,672 children were taken into care in Hillsborough, the highest of any Florida county.

Sheriff’s officials earlier this month said there was no change in criteria that investigators use when deciding whether to take children out of their homes. The spike was a result of more cases being referred from the Florida Abuse Hotline.

In most cases, children only slept one or two nights in offices before being placed. In addition to air mattresses, blankets and pillows were always supplied. Dinner was brought in for the children and there was trained adult supervision throughout their stay, Eckerd officials said.

Eckerd released the internal review after public record requests were made to review Eckerd’s communication with DCF by both the Tampa Bay Times and Florida’s Children First, a statewide advocacy organization focused on children’s rights.

Florida Children’s First executive director Christina Spudeas said Eckerd could have found appropriate places for children if its staff had followed its rules.

Sleeping in an office would have felt like another rejection for children already traumatized from being taken from their homes because of issues like abuse, neglect or domestic violence, she said.

“It’s appalling they didn’t follow the procedures already in place,” she said. “Placing child in an office where you don’t have a living room, a bedroom, a caregiver has a negative impact on a child’s psyche.”

Eckerd also handles foster placement in Pasco and Pinellas counties, a contract worth about $65 million per year.

Officials said they have adopted new procedures to ensure there is no repeat of the failure.

That includes additional training of staff who were also required to sign an policy verifying they understand the protocol. They will also compile a critical incident report whenever a child ends up sleeping in an office.

Recent efforts to encourage more parents to foster children has increased the number of beds in the county by 72, said Terri Durdaller, Eckerd spokeswoman.

“Ultimately, Eckerd Kids is responsible and accountable to ensure accuracy in all aspects of its work in support of the child welfare system and apologize for the confusion this error has caused,” Durdaller said of the group’s initial reports. “We believe it is unacceptable for even one child to sleep in an unlicensed placement and we are committed to providing an appropriate, home-like setting for every child who enters our care.”

Contact Christopher O’Donnell at codonnell@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3446. Follow@codonnell_Times on Twitter.


Original Article

Florida does right by LGBT foster kids.

We’ve got a lot of names to take in today’s Friday Files — including a well-known quarterback, a lesser-known Pokemon and a whole slew of politicians.

But first, some props to Gov. Rick Scott‘s Department of Children and Families.

Earlier this year, DCF was poised to do take some ugly — and dangerous — actions affecting gay and transgender kids in foster care, basically giving a greenlight to group homes that wanted to bully the kids or even try to change their sexual orientation.

The public’s general reaction was: What is wrong with you people?

Seriously, you don’t have to have marched in a pride parade to know that it’s twisted to allow bullying or brainwashing.

Originally, the state acted fine. DCF’s original proposed guidelines banned group homes from allowing the “harassment or bullying of children” based on “gender expression” or “sexual orientation” and from trying to change any youth’s sexual orientation.

But then, after a handful of religious leaders objected, state officials removed all of those protections.

It was an odd and ugly thing to do. And not surprisingly, a lot of people objected — Republican, Democrats, child advocates and more. I was certainly among them and encouraged readers to contact state officials.

Well, as of last week, DCF made a 180, putting all those protections back in. What’s more, DCF Secretary Mike Carroll went a step further, calling for a full-time ombudsman to probe complaints of discrimination from any child in the foster system.

It’s one thing for adults to wage ideological wars against each other. But everyone can agree that protecting some of the state’s most vulnerable and already-neglected kids from further trauma is a bipartisan no-brainer.

Entire Article

HIGHER EDUCATION: Actions Needed to Improve Access to Federal Financial Assistance for Homeless and Foster Youth

Homeless youth and youth in foster care are often unprepared for the transition to adulthood. Given the economic benefits of college, GAO was asked to examine the college experiences of these vulnerable youth. GAO examined (1) college enrollment and completion for foster and homeless youth, (2) the extent to which challenges these youth face affect their ability to pursue college, and (3) the extent to which program barriers hinder these youth from obtaining federal financial assistance for college. GAO analyzed the most recently available Education data—two enrollment data sets, for 2011-2012 and 2013-2014, and data on college completion from 2009; reviewed relevant federal laws and guidance; interviewed officials from Education and HHS, as well as external groups knowledgeable about higher education, foster youth, and homelessness; and held discussion groups with foster and homeless youth.


GAO is making six recommendations to Education and HHS to improve homeless and foster youth access to financial assistance for college, including centralizing college information for these youth on Education’s website, clarifying Education guidance, and considering legislative proposals to simplify federal requirements for homeless and foster youth. HHS agreed with these recommendations while Education generally did not agree or disagree, but described actions it was taking in response to the recommendations.



Editorial: Foster children need real beds in real homes

The revelation that 17 foster children had to sleep on air mattresses in offices highlights the ongoing struggle in Hillsborough County to protect kids who live on the brink of crisis. Eckerd Kids, the state contractor, said the temporary arrangement was necessary because it had no beds available, and it is working to ensure no future shortage of accommodations. Abuse, neglect and violence drove these kids into the state’s care, and the state has an obligation to do right by them.

Over several weeks in May and June, children who had been removed from their homes bunked for one or two nights in an office building and a rec center in Tampa. The Tampa Bay Times’Christopher O’Donnell reported that most of the children were 16 or 17; one child was 11. Beyond the circumstances that prompted the state to take them from their homes, they also had personal issues that made placement in foster care more difficult.

The Department of Children and Families knew about the improvised accommodations and now says it may impose sanctions against Eckerd. DCF, Eckerd, the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office and other stakeholders are all looking into a spike in reports to the county’s abuse hotline that led to the kids being in limbo.

Those steps are important for ensuring accountability, but they don’t address the central mandate: to care for children whose homes and families have failed them. Eckerd is paid $70 million a year to fulfill that duty, and it cannot fail.

To be sure, relocating these vulnerable children to group homes, foster homes or extended family members is delicate work that must ensure their safety. State law is specific about how placements can be made, and that can be challenging in the midst of a crisis. Eckerd said the 17 children were under trained adult supervision, had access to showers and were well fed. Those at the rec center had TV and games. But veterans of the child welfare system say frequent transitions in and out of temporary homes exacerbate kids’ problems. “We harm them when we move them,” one advocate said.

A horrifying streak of child deaths prompted Florida legislators to pass a law in 2014 that prioritized children’s safety over the rights of parents, leading to a jump in the number of kids entering foster care statewide. It’s essential that services keep up with demand, particularly in Hillsborough, which has the second most child placements in the state.

Eckerd, which also handles foster placements in Pinellas and Pasco counties, said it is working on ways to increase bed capacity and recruit more foster families. Those are important concrete steps. The state and county must do their part to provide sufficient funding and oversight, and everyone must advocate for these children who are the victims of terrible circumstances.

Editorial: Foster children need real beds in real homes 07/08/16 [Last modified: Friday, July 8, 2016 5:42pm]
Photo reprints | Article reprints

Read original article HERE

Supporting Youth In Foster Care: Making Healthy Choices

This guide is designed to help you learn more about treatment for youth in foster care who have experienced trauma and are working to improve their mental health. Chapters 2 and 3 can help you better understand trauma and treatments for trauma. Chapters 4 and 5 talk about strategies for helping youth.

Read: Supporting Youth In Foster Care: Making Healthy Choices

Measuring the Impact of Children’s Rights to Counsel: Advancing Child Due Process and Well-being in the Juvenile Court Ecology

Measuring the Impact of Children’s Rights to Counsel: Advancing Child Due Process and Well-being in the Juvenile Court Ecology describes the potential outcomes for children and juvenile court systems by guaranteeing client-directed counsel for all children in dependency and termination of parental rights proceedings, as well as the challenges jurisdictions face in seeking to measure the impact of such representation. In addition, it includes recommendations to improve policy and practice on both the national and state level.

FCF’s Employee Protection (Whistle Blower) Policy

If any employee reasonably believes that some policy, practice, or activity of Florida’s Children First, Inc. is in violation of law, a written complaint must be filed by that employee with the Executive Director or the Board President.

It is the intent of Florida’s Children First, Inc. to adhere to all laws and regulations that apply to the organization and the underlying purpose of this policy is to support the organization’s goal of legal compliance. The support of all employees is necessary to achieving compliance with various laws and regulations. An employee is protected from retaliation only if the employee brings the alleged unlawful activity, policy, or practice to the attention of Florida’s Children First, Inc. and provides Florida’s Children First, Inc. with a reasonable opportunity to investigate and correct the alleged unlawful activity. The protection described below is only available to employees that comply with this requirement.

Florida’s Children First, Inc. will not retaliate against an employee who in good faith, has made a protest or raised a complaint against some practice of Florida’s Children First, Inc. or of another individual or entity with whom Florida’s Children First, Inc. has a business relationship, on the basis of a reasonable belief that the practice is in violation of law, or a clear mandate of public policy.

Florida’s Children First, Inc. will not retaliate against employees who disclose or threaten to disclose to a supervisor or a public body, any activity, policy, or practice of Florida’s Children First, Inc. that the employee reasonably believes is in violation of a law, or a rule, or regulation mandated pursuant to law or is in violation of a clear mandate or public policy concerning the health, safety, welfare, or protection of the environment.


FCF’s Key Employee Compensation Policy

This Policy establishes a fair and documented basis for determining the compensation of key employees of Florida’s Children First.  It applies to the compensation of all persons employed by the Organization who meet the key employee test (see below) established by law:

The process includes all of these elements: (1) review and approval by the board of directors or compensation committee of the Organization; (2) use of data as to comparable compensation; and (3) contemporaneous documentation and recordkeeping.

  1. Review and approval. The compensation of the person is reviewed and approved by the board of directors or the compensation committee of the organization if one is appointed, provided that persons with conflicts of interest with respect to the compensation arrangement at issue are not involved in this review and approval.
  2. Use of data as to comparable compensation. The compensation of the person is reviewed and approved using data as to comparable compensation for similarly qualified persons in functionally comparable positions at similarly situated organizations.
  3. Contemporaneous documentation and recordkeeping. There must be contemporaneous documentation and recordkeeping with respect to the deliberations and decisions regarding the compensation arrangement.
  4. Chief employed executive – For FCF, the executive director is the top management official (i.e., a person who has ultimate responsibility for implementing the decisions of the Organization’s governing body or for supervising the management, administration, or operations of the Organization).


Key Employee – An employee of the Organization who meets all three of the following tests: (a) $150,000 Test: receives reportable compensation from the Organization and all related organizations in excess of $150,000 for the year; (b) Responsibility Test: the employee: (i) has responsibility, powers, or influence over the Organization as a whole that is similar to those of officers, directors, or trustees; (ii) manages a discrete segment or activity of the Organization that represents 10% or more of the activities, assets, income, or expenses of the Organization, as compared to the Organization as a whole; or (iii) has or shares authority to control or determine 10% or more of the Organization’s capital expenditures, operating budget, or compensation for employees; and (c) Top 20 Test: is one of the 20 employees (that satisfy the $150,000 Test and Responsibility Test) with the highest reportable compensation from the Organization and related organizations for the year.


FCF’S Records Management and Retention Policy


1.  It is FCF’s policy to apply effective and cost efficient management techniques to maintain complete, accurate, and high quality records. Records are retained in accordance with all applicable laws and regulations and this policy.

2.  Records that have satisfied their required period of retention will be destroyed in an appropriate manner.

3.  All FCF employees and agents are responsible for ensuring that all records are created, used, maintained, preserved, and destroyed in accordance with this Records Management policy.

4.  Vital and official records will be retained and protected to ensure FCF’s continued operations in the event of a natural or man-made disaster.

5.  Records containing confidential and proprietary information will be securely maintained, controlled and protected to prevent unauthorized access.

6.  All records generated and received by FCF are the property of FCF. No FCF employee, by virtue of his or her position, has any personal or property right to such records even though he or she may have developed or compiled them.

7.  The unauthorized destruction, removal or use of such records is prohibited.

8.  No one may falsify or inappropriately alter information in any record or document.

9.  The Executive Director shall designate an individual to be responsible for implementing and maintaining FCF’s records management program in accordance with this policy.

10. The Operations and Oversight Committee will review and approve all changes and revisions to the record retention schedules.

11. Information pertaining to unauthorized destruction, removal, or use of FCF records or regarding falsifying or inappropriately altering information in a record or document should be reported to the Executive Director and President of the Board of Directors immediately.


Records: A record is recorded information, regardless of medium or characteristic, which can be retrieved at any time. It includes all original documents, papers, letter: cards, books, maps, photographs, blueprints, sound or video recordings, microfilm, magnetic tape, electronic media, and other information recording media, regardless of physical form or characteristic, that are generated and/or received in connection with transacting its business and is related to FCF’s legal obligations. If not stipulated otherwise, this is the record to which retention schedules apply.

FCF business records include, but are not limited to, letterhead correspondence, legal opinions, real estate documents, directives and policies, official meeting minutes, personnel records, benefit programs, purchasing requisitions and invoices, accounts payable and receivable documents, tax documents, reimbursement documents, completed and signed forms, contracts, insurance documents, general ledgers, audit reports, and financial reports and financial data

Records can only be discarded when the specified retention period has expired and a Certificate of Destruction form is executed.

Non-Records: Non-records material includes duplicate copies of correspondence, duplicate copies of records used for short-term reference purposes, blank forms, stocks of publications, magazines, publications from professional organizations, newspapers, public telephone directories, and transitory messages used primarily for the informal communication of information.  Transitory messages do not set policy, establish guidelines or procedures, certify a transaction, or become a receipt. Transitory messages may include, but are not limited to, e-mail messages with short-lived or no administrative value, voice mail, self-sticking notes, and telephone messages.

Non-records are maintained for as long as administratively needed, and the retention schedules do not apply. Non-records may be discarded when the business use has terminated.

Discretion should be used in determining whether to generate or retain transitory messages in the nature of notes of unofficial meetings, telephone conversations, or other personal notes. If generated, such records should be routinely discarded when they are no longer useful. For example, when the informal record, such as an employee’s personal notes, is transferred to a more formal record, such as, report, the notes are no longer useful and should be discarded.

Preliminary working papers and superseded drafts, particularly after subsequent versions are finalized, should be discarded.  E-mail that contains no substantive data, such as invitations to lunch and responses to such, should be routinely discarded.

Vital Records: Vital records are records that are essential to the continued functioning or reconstitution of FCF or facility during and after an emergency and also preserve the rights of FCF or facility, its employees, clients and other constituent groups.

E-Mail Communications: E-mail communications, messages and documents transmitted by email are similar to paper documents.  They may be considered business records and are subject to this policy.  To determine whether an e-mail message must be retained and for how long, think of it like a paper memo or document.  If you would retain a memo due to its content, then you are required to retain an e-mail message of the same content for the same length of time.

The originator/sender of the e-mail message (or the recipient of a message if the sender is outside FCF) is the person responsible for retaining the message.  E-mail messages may be retained in electronic form in the mailbox, or be printed and filed along with other documents related to the same topic or project.  Users may delete e-mail messages that they are not required by this policy to retain (such as non-record messages and transitory messages) and messages that are being retained in printed form.


All records will be maintained and retained in accordance with federal and state laws and regulations and in accordance with this schedule:

  1. Documents maintained in perpetuity
    1. Corporate Documents: Articles of Incorporation, Bylaws, Minutes and other records of incorporation.
    2. Financial Documents: Audit reports, Financial Statements (year end): general/private ledgers, trial balance, journals, chart of accounts, checks for important payments and purchases, depreciation schedules.
    3. Legal Documents: deeds, mortgages, bills of sale, contracts (that are still in effect), loan documents and notes; patents, trademark, service marks and copyright registration.
    4. Insurance Documents: Insurance records, current accident reports, claims, policies, etc.
    5. Employee Benefit Documents: Retirement and pension records including Summary Plan Descriptions.
    6. Tax Documents: Tax returns and worksheets, W-2s.
  1. Documents maintained for seven years
    1. Financial Documents: Accounts receivable & payable ledgers & schedules; Donations; Internal audit reports; invoices (to customers, from vendors), Purchase orders; Grants (after closure)
    2. Legal Documents: Expired: Contracts, mortgages, notes and leases; Expense Analyses/expense distribution schedules, correspondence on legal matters
    3. Employee Documents: Garnishments; Payroll records & summaries including records related to employee’s leave; Personnel files (terminated employees); Timesheets; Withholding tax statements; I-9s; employment applications
  1. Documents maintained for three years
    1. Bank documents: Bank reconciliation, bank statements, deposit records, electronic fund transfer documents, & cancelled checks
    2. General Correspondence


  1.  Records that have satisfied their legal, fiscal, administrative, and archival requirements may be destroyed in accordance with the Records Retention Schedules.
  1. Records that cannot be destroyed include records of matters in litigation or records with a permanent retention. In the event of a lawsuit or government investigation, the applicable records that are not permanent cannot be destroyed until the lawsuit or investigation has been finalized, Once the litigation/investigation has been finalized, the records may be destroyed in accordance with the Records Retention Schedules.
  1. FCF records must be destroyed in a manner that ensures the confidentiality of the records and renders the information no longer recognizable as FCF records, The approved methods to destroy FCF records include, but are not limited to, recycling, shredding, burning, pulping, pulverizing, and magnetizing. FCF records cannot be placed in trash receptacles unless the records are rendered no longer recognizable as a FCF record.

V.  Exceptions.

Exceptions to these rules and terms for retention may be granted only by the Organization’s Executive Director or Board President

FCF’s Conflict of Interest Policy

The purpose of this Statement is to protect Florida’s Children First, Inc.’s interest when it is contemplating entering into a transaction that might benefit the private interest of an officer, director, member or relative of an officer, director, member or might result in a possible excess benefit transaction.

I. Applicable Law: This policy is intended to supplement but not replace any applicable state and federal laws governing conflict of interest applicable to nonprofit and charitable organizations.   This Agreement, its validity, construction and effect will be by the laws of the State of Florida, with venue proper in Broward County, Florida.

II. Definitions:

A.  Interested Person:  any director, officer, committee member or relative of any director, officer, or committee member, who has a direct or indirect financial interest.

B.  Financial Interest:   A person has a financial interest if the person directly or indirectly, through business, investment or family has an ownership or investment interest in any entity with which Florida’s Children First, Inc. has a transaction or arrangement OR a compensation arrangement with Florida’s Children First, Inc. or with any entity or individual with which Florida’s Children First, Inc. has a transaction or arrangement OR a potential ownership or investment interest in or compensation agreement with any entity or individual with which Florida’s Children First, Inc. is negotiating a transaction or arrangement.

III. Procedures:

A. Duty to Disclose: In connection with any actual or possible conflict of interest, an interested person must disclose the existence of the financial interest and be given the opportunity to disclose all material facts to the Board of Directors or Committee considering the proposed transaction or arrangement.

B. Decision Making Authority: A financial interest is not necessarily a conflict of interest.  A person who has a financial interest may have a conflict of interest only if the Board of Directors decides that a conflict of interest exists. After the disclosure of material facts, and after any discussion with the interested person, he/she shall leave the Board of Directors or Committee Meeting while the determination of a conflict of interest is discussed and voted upon.

C. Procedures for Addressing the Conflict of Interest:  

1.  An interested person may make a presentation at the Board of Directors or Committee meeting, but after the presentation, he/she shall leave the meeting during the discussion of, and vote on, the transaction or arrangement involving the possible conflict of interest.

2.  The President of the Board of Directors or Chairperson of the Committee shall, if appropriate, appoint a disinterested person or committee to investigate alternatives to be proposed transaction or arrangement.

3.  After exercising due diligence, the Board of Directors or the Committee shall determine whether Florida’s Children First, Inc. can obtain with reasonable efforts a more advantageous transaction or arrangement from a person or entity that would not give rise to a conflict of interest.

4.  If a more advantageous transaction or arrangement in not reasonably possible under circumstances not producing a conflict of interest, the Board of Directors or Committee shall determine by a majority vote of the disinterested directors or Committee members whether the transaction or arrangement is in Florida’s Children First, Inc. .’s best interest, for its own benefit, and whether or not it is fair and reasonable.

D. Violations of the Conflict of Interest Policy:

1.  If the Board of Directors or Committee has reasonable cause to believe a party has failed to disclose an actual or possible conflict of interest, it shall inform the party of the basis for such belief and afford the party an opportunity to explain the alleged failure to disclose.

2.  If, after hearing the party’s response and after making further investigation as warranted by the circumstances, the Board of Directors or Committee determines the party has failed to disclose an actual or possible conflict of interest, it shall take appropriate disciplinary and corrective action.

IV. Recording of Proceedings: The minutes of the Board of Directors and all Committee meetings shall contain the names of the persons who disclosed or were found to have a financial interest in connection with an actual or possible conflict of interest, the nature of the financial interest, any action taken to determine whether a conflict of interest exists, and the decision as to whether or not a conflict of interest existed. The minutes shall also include the names of the persons who were present for the discussion and the votes relating to the proceedings.  Alternatives to the proposed transaction shall also be recorded in the minutes.

V. Compensation:

A.  A voting member of the Board of Directors or a Committee who receives compensation, directly or indirectly from Florida’s Children First, Inc. for services is precluded from voting or matters pertaining to that member’s compensation.

B.  Any voting member of the Board of Directors or any Committee whose responsibilities include compensation matters and who receives compensation, directly or indirectly, from Florida’s Children First, Inc. either individually or collectively, is prohibited from providing any information to any Committee regarding compensation.

VI. Annual Statements: Each director, principal officer and/or member of a Committee with decision making authority should annually sign a statement which affirms that such person has a received a copy of the Conflict of Interest Policy, has read and understands such policy, has agreed to comply with such policy and understands that Florida’s Children First, Inc. is charitable and in order to maintain its federal tax exemption it must engage primarily in activities which accomplish one or more of its tax-exempt purposes.

VII. Periodic Reviews:     To ensure the Organization operates in a manner consistent with the charitable purposes and does not engage in activities that could jeopardize its tax exempt status, periodic reviews shall be conducted.  The periodic reviews shall, at a minimum, include whether compensation arrangements and benefits are reasonable based on competent survey information and arm’s length bargaining AND whether relationships with management organizations conform to Florida’s Children First, Inc.’s written policies, are properly recorded, reflect reasonable investment and payments for goods and services, further the exempt purpose of Florida’s Children First, Inc. and do not result in inurement, impermissible private benefit or in an excess benefit transaction.

VIII.   Use of Outside Experts:       When conducting periodic reviews or as needed for investigative purposes, Florida’s Children First, Inc., may, but need not, use outside advisors and/or experts.  If the outside experts are used, their use shall not relieve the Board of Directors of Committee of its responsibility for ensuring that periodic reviews are conducted.


Out of the Shadows: Supporting LGBTQ Youth in Child Welfare Through Cross System Collaboration

This report highlights the research on the disparities that exist between LGBTQ foster youth and their non-LGBTQ peers, as well as the compounding effects these factors have in relation to other intersecting factors including race, ethnicity, culture and language. It also discusses successful policy strategies and state examples of efforts that are addressing system and practice obstacles.

Out of the Shadows: Supporting LGBTQ Youth in Child Welfare Through Cross System Collaboration

Adult Adoption Resources

This Appendix contains the forms needed and other useful information for Adult Adoption.

View the Adult Adoption Appendix PDF or Word versions.

Foster kids aging out of system have more options, but basics like housing still a challenge

Laura Vickers , 18, with her foster dad Gary Rice, says she “didn’t have much of a (parental) figure like I do now,” echoing what many foster children turning 18 need: support in a stable home environment. News-Journal/JIM TILLER

Historically, foster youth in Florida who turn 18 have celebrated their milestone birthday with a push out the door and well wishes shortly after they blow out their candles.

They could opt for a monthly stipend of around $1,200 if they chose to continue their education full time, but the support of a home and case management services ended. Many fell through holes in the safety net, shifting from a troubled childhood into struggling adults.

Two years ago though, the system changed dramatically. Now foster youth who “age out” of the system have the opportunity to stay in it and receive a variety of services until they are 21, or 22 if they have a disability.


Local child welfare officials and young adults who have taken advantage of the extended benefits have been pleased with the outcomes of the new legislation, except for two major issues: a lack of supervised living arrangements and transportation. As of April, there were 16 young adults across Volusia, Flagler and Putnam counties taking advantage of the new legislation, according to Community Partnership for Children, the local agency that helps foster youth across the three counties.

“As we started to roll down this road, we realized quickly that housing and transportation were our two issues — I mean they are communitywide issues,” said Karin Flositz, chief operating officer for Community Partnership.

Laura Vickers, 18, of Palm Coast, is one young adult who has been lucky enough to find foster parents willing to take her in after she turned 18. What started out as a decent place to live ended up becoming a new support system for Vickers.

“I didn’t have much of a (parental) figure like I do now,” Vickers said, sitting at the table in her new home recently with her foster father Gary Rice. “That’s what makes me happy about it.”

Gary and Lisa Rice met Vickers through the local chapter of Fellowship for Christian Athletes that Gary helps out with on a regular basis. Vickers was getting ready to age out when they met a little over a year ago.

“I asked Laura about it one day because I was concerned what a kid would think about living with an old guy like me,” Rice, now 51, said. “She said to me that all they wanted was a decent place to stay.”

In fact, a decent, supervised place to stay is much needed for foster youth opting to stay in the foster care system past their 18th birthday, according to Flositz.

Flositz said the child welfare agency contracts out all of their independent living programs to Children’s Home Society of Florida, another child welfare agency in Daytona Beach. She said lately the agencies have been focusing on how to recruit foster parents to take teenagers.

“There aren’t people banging down our door to foster teenagers,” Flositz said. “There’s just this misperception with people in general that there are criminal and juvenile issues or other things involved, and these are really kids that have been abused, neglected or abandoned and need help. They need a stable living environment.”


The “Nancy C. Detert Common Sense and Compassion Independent Living Act” was approved in 2013 by the state House. The legislation took effect in January 2014 and gives young adults aging out of foster care the option of staying in the system to finish high school, earn a GED, pursue postsecondary education or start a career.

Florida isn’t the first state to open up benefits to young adults after they turn 18. In 2008, President George W. Bush signed the “Fostering Connections to Success and Increasing Adoptions Act,” which allowed states to provide foster support and services to youth until they are 21.

Flositz said there are 16 young adults taking advantage of the new law, and that number is about half of the total number of kids who aged out in 2014 and 2015. There were 31 youth who aged out in 2014 and 34 in 2015 for all three counties, Flositz said.

“Just like every 18 year old, it’s a time filled with angst,” Flositz said. “So a lot of kids were like ‘see ya later’ when they turned 18 — not knowing maybe the full benefit, or the full impact of that decision at the time. The good thing is they can come back.”

In 2014, there were only five young adults in extended foster care, and in 2015, there were four. Flositz said it’s a “moving target” though, and foster youth can opt back in and out as long as they are eligible.

Seven of the adults in extended foster care right now live with foster families, five live in transitional homes (homes that staff visit throughout the week), three are renting rooms and one lives in an apartment. Foster families or other home providers are paid board rates directly under extended foster care by the community-based service provider.

Qualifications to be in extended foster care are similar across the country. In Florida, a young adult must have been living in licensed foster care at the age of 18. They also must be attending high school or working on their GED, enrolled in college or vocational education program, employed at least 80 hours per month or participating in a program “designed to promote or eliminate barriers to employment.” Young adults with a documented disability that would prevent them from doing either of those things can still be in extended foster care.

Susan Haley, program director at Children’s Home Society, said most young adults in extended foster care are still trying to achieve their high school diploma. To stay in extended foster care, a young adult must meet with a caseworker each month and attend court reviews every six months on average.

Haley said the extension of foster care benefits to those over 18 didn’t come with any more funding from the state, but it is a matter of reallocating resources from other independent living programs already in place for those over 18. She said mental health resources for older foster children has always been, and continues to be, a great need as well.


Vickers has spent most of her life living with relatives, foster families or group homes with and without her three siblings. Originally from the Palatka area, Vickers’ siblings still live there, but now Vickers is a junior at Flagler Palm Coast High School and living at the Rice’s home.

“We don’t treat her any different than we treat our other kids,” Rice said. “Even though she’s 18, she still has two years of school to go, so I told her I’m going to treat it like your 16.”

Haley said the idea of extended foster care legislation was to keep kids living with foster families, so they would have that support. Imagine trying to file taxes for the first time, prepare a resume, find a job or buy a car without the help of a parental figure.

“The whole intent of the legislation was to have foster homes and that guidance and mentoring,” Haley said. “We have found that those who have stayed in the foster home after turning 18 have a fairly high success rate.”

Statistics bear her out. Young women remaining in care experience a 38 percent decrease in the incidence of pregnancy before age 20, according to the National Resource Center for Permanency and Family Connections. The center also reports that remaining in care more than doubles the odds a young person will be working or in school at 19, and those who remain in care are twice as likely to complete at least one year of college by 21.

The extra challenges foster children face before they reach 18 have lasting consequences, according to Florida Guardian ad Litem. More than 60 percent drop out of high school before graduation — a rate twice as high as the dropout rate for all students. Foster youth are also two or three times more likely than other students to have disabilities that affect their ability to learn. The poor academic performance often affects them in adulthood and contributes to higher than average rates of homelessness, criminality, drug abuse and unemployment, states Florida Guardian ad Litem.

When foster youth reach 18, something as simple as transportation can be a major setback, said Haley. She said if young adults in the independent living programs can’t drive then they still need to live near public transportation to get to school and/or work.

Extended foster care helps solve that problem, with more financial support than the previous monthly stipend for young people in school.

Destini Cover, an 18-year-old DeLand High School student, has been living with a foster mother in west Volusia while she finishes up her senior year. Cover recently bought a 2014 Chrysler sedan, and she said the $200 reimbursed every month — through the state’s “Keys to Independence” program that helps foster youth between the ages of 15 and 21 with car insurance — helps her balance bills between school and working full time at McDonald’s.

Cover will graduate this month, and she plans to pursue a four-year college degree and then maybe go to law school. Cover said her mother, who died when Cover was 15, always thought she would make a good lawyer.

On a recent afternoon, Cover returned home a little later than usual — it was one of her only days off work that week and she had a geometry test to take after school.

“Just because you’re in foster care, people look down on you,” Cover said. “I’m pretty content with my life. I’m able to provide for myself. I do more than the average teenager.”


Flositz and Haley both said a major focus for foster youth over 18 is to make sure they have positive, meaningful connections — for example, someone to call at 2 a.m. when they have a flat tire.

“Money, the check, isn’t going to give you that feeling at Thanksgiving or Christmas of being a part of something,” Flositz said. “Having connections to other people in the world is what can change a path.”

Cover has her boyfriend and his mother, who she said she is closer to than most people. Vickers has the Rices and several siblings now to ask for help.

“We want to make sure they have mentors and people they can look up to, so they have a vision of someone they want to be,” Flositz said. “So they can be the best human being that they are meant to be.”


Besides a need for more foster families for kids younger or older than 18, teens from ages 14 to 17 can benefit from a community mentor. For more information on fostering or how to become a mentor, visit Community Partnership for Children online at communitypartnershipforchildren.org or call 386-238-4900; or Children’s Home Society of Florida at chsfl.org or call 386-304-7600.

Article Link

Published: Sunday, May 15, 2016 at 5:30 a.m.
Last Modified: Sunday, May 15, 2016 at 8:19 p.m.

L. David Shear, Tampa lawyer and advocate for foster children, dies at age 79

L. David Shear

L. David Shear

TAMPA — Because of L. David Shear, hundreds of children in foster care have found permanent homes, says the president of Bay Area Legal Services.

Shear, who died Tuesday at age 79 after an illness, was a prominent Tampa lawyer who served as president of the Florida Bar in 1979 and 1980, and was also past president of the Hillsborough County Bar Association.

“He will be missed by so many and with good reason,” said Richard C. Woltmann, the president of Bay Area Legal Services, who knew Shear for more than 35 years. “There’s not that many lions that have hearts like him. … David was a very, very special man.”

Shear endowed the L. David Shear Children’s Law Center, created by Bay Area Legal Services to help very young children in foster care find families through adoption or reunification.

“We probably have at least 60 kids right now that we’re helping in open cases,” Woltmann said. “We’ve probably helped hundreds of kids. … That’s what his legacy is —- that we have institutionalized a project that is giving permanent homes to kids that might have languished in foster care for their first 18 years.”

The project was created about six or seven years ago, Woltmann said. Every year, Shear would attend a holiday party given for the center’s young clients and their families.

Shear was dedicated to helping people afford legal representation.

“I think he knows, being a lawyer, the problems that people without lawyers can have,” Woltmann said. “He’s always had an interest in helping people who can’t afford an attorney to help them with very significant legal problems.”

Shear was a “good person,” said Tampa lawyer Leonard Howard Gilbert, who succeeded Shear as president of the state bar. “He was a good citizen. He was involved in a number of other kinds of efforts in the Tampa community.”

And 2012 Florida Bar President Gwynne Young said Shear “was a wonderful mentor to people like me that he helped support and mentor in bar work.”

When she ran for the position in a competitive election, she said, Shear would call her and offer advice and encouragement, sharing what he learned running in a competitive race.

“David was really a kind and thoughtful person,” Young said. “He was a very good lawyer. If I had to think about what I associate him with, a lot was his devotion to working for, providing access to justice and legal services for people who could not afford to hire a lawyer.”

When he became head of the state bar at the relatively young age of 43, he described himself as an optimist ready to meet the challenges of the membership, and pledged to help provide low-cost legal services, particularly to the elderly.

“I’m a people person,” he told the Florida Bar Journal. “I try to relate to people because their reactions are important to me.”

Shear was active in many areas of the community, including the American Red Cross, the Hillsborough County Heart Association, the Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce, Tampa Downtown Partnership and Congregation Rodeph Sholom synagogue.

He was also dedicated to the Boys and Girls Club of Tampa Bay, which he served many years and became president and board chairman and later acted as the organization’s corporate legal counsel. His contributions with the organziation were honored in 1999, when the club named its North Tampa location on Yukon Street as the David and Casey Shear Branch, after Shear and his wife.

A lifelong resident of Tampa, Shear graduated from Vanderbilt University and the University of Florida College of Law before founding the firm of Shear, Newman, Hahn & Rosenkranz. He later joined the Tampa office of Ruden, McClosky and Gunster.

Services are slated for 2 p.m. Thursday at Congregation Rodeph Sholom, 2713 Bayshore Blvd.

See more

Florida YOUTH Shine on NPR

Recently, FYS Tallahassee members Taylor, Whitney, and Sandina and FYS board members Chelsea and Dan, were interviewed by Dr. Liz Holifield of 411 Teen. They spoke about how FYS advocates and how important it is for youth to advocate. Great job FYS! Listen to the show here.

Juvenile Record Expunction Update: Know Your Rights

This law (SB 386) drops the automatic expunction age from 24 to 21. It also allows some young adults to seek expunction of their juvenile records prior to age 21 – if they haven’t committed a crime within the last 5 years. Additionally, it removes the 12-month limitation on seeking expunction of juvenile diversion records.

Juvenile Record Expunction Update: Know Your Rights

Tuition Exemption: Know Your Rights

In March, 2016, the Board of the Governors of the Florida State University System realized the need to revise its Regulation that limited the use of the tuition exemption to a maximum of 120 credit hours in undergraduate courses – which was not correct according to current law. The revised Regulation will make it clear that there is no limitation on the number of credit hours or type of courses. The only limitation is that the exemption expires when the young adult reaches age 28.

Tuition Exemption: Know Your Rights

Plantation girl ‘SHINE’s bright for at-risk and foster children

During her teenage years Teirvondria “Tia” McCall has dedicated much of her time to speaking up for children who often can’t.

The Plantation resident became the president of the Broward chapter of Florida Youth SHINE (Striving High for Independence aNd Empowerment) at age 15. She made history as the youngest president for the organization, which is made up of current and former foster youth.

In her role, McCall oversees meetings for the chapter, made up of around 40 members between ages 13 to 24. She takes pride in being hands-on and emerging as a positive example for others. The youngster has also visited the Capitol in Tallahassee during Children’s Week to talk about bills and issues affecting those within the foster care system.

“A lot of the stuff youths and foster care and youth in general have to go through…it can be traumatizing,” McCall said.

“By me or anyone just opening their mouth and speaking passionately and intelligently about what you believe in can spark change without even knowing that you are doing it. So it’s really important as a teen for me to push the idea that just because someone is in foster care doesn’t make someone different,” McCall said.

Florida’s Children First (FCF) has taken notice of her efforts and named her as “Youth Advocate of the Year.” The FCF’s 14th annual Broward awards reception at the Riverside Hotel in Fort Lauderdale also presented the 2016 “Champion for Children” to Dr. Frederick Lippman, chancellor of Nova Southeastern University’s Health Professions Division.

The “Child Advocates of the Year” honorees were Stuart Singer and Carl Goldfarb of the Fort Lauderdale office of Boies, Schiller & Flexner LLP. Howard Talenfeld serves as president of the statewide advocacy organization made up of supporters and attorneys focused on protecting legal rights of at-risk and foster care children.

“Tia is a natural leader,” he said. “She has been an exceptional leader for Youth SHINE. She has been in the system. Her advocacy has been outstanding. “

McCall refers to receiving the award as “life-changing,” as it reaffirms her belief that the work is leading to people taking notice. She wants to be that beacon of hope for a child who needs it. McCall was in the care of her brother’s grandmother until age 17. During that time she suffered verbal and physical abuse, as well as witnessed drug use in her home. These days McCall is staying with her biological mother, who has been sober three years.

“She is proud of me, and I’m proud of her as well,” McCall said.

McCall avoided becoming the product of her environment and is currently studying criminal justice at Broward College. Outside the classroom she works part-time and interns at Florida’s Children First.

Christina Spudeas, executive director of Florida Children’s First, has interacted with McCall in Tallahassee and is amazed at her spirit.

“She is way beyond her years with her organizational skills and the way she carries herself,” she said. ” Having the ability to know that what she went through and sharing parts of her story can help make an impact and change lives for those coming behind her has really empowered this young lady. “

For more information on Florida Children’s First and Florida Youth SHINE, visit floridaschildrenfirst.org.


By Scott Fishman

Forum Publishing Group


Original Article


Florida's Children First

YouTube Facebook