For more than 15 years since the privatization of child welfare in Florida, the Florida Department of Children and Families has contracted with lead agencies like ChildNet and Our Kids of Miami-Dade/Monroe Inc. to operate the system of care that has all too frequently relied upon substandard, dangerous group home placements, and sometimes even placements in motels, hotels, shelters or offices.

Foster or adoptive parent recruiting through lead agencies is weak, care is mediocre—and there’s little incentive to improve their own standards. The lead agencies have known that many group homes and shelters are havens of physical and sexual abuse, do not provide individualized care and treatment and all too frequently cause lifelong harm to foster children.

But as we’ve seen, although some group homes allow children to thrive, many more have had issues with drugs, violence, prostitution and truancy. Also, the cost of these homes can top $37,000 a child per year, compared to $6,300 a child for placement in a foster home. Most group homes are a costly and ineffective attempt at child protection when these lead agencies do not recruit sufficient numbers of foster and adoptive parents. Yet lead agencies like ChildNet, Our Kids and others throughout Florida insist on often allowing group homes to be used as a first resort to help at-risk kids.

Legislation is now being considered and refined in Tallahassee by Sen. Eleanor Sobel’s Children, Families and Elder Affairs Committee and championed by Sen. Nancy Detert that would seek to improve stability in the lives of foster children by placing them with the best available placement.

This “continuum of care” would include friends, families and foster homes. Also included, though, are group homes. These homes, often run by private agencies paid by the state, would be required to show kids are improving or recovering from trauma before being utilized.

Such legislation, if it is passed, would help force the lead agencies to recruit more foster homes and only rely upon quality group homes. The legislation would help ensure more appropriate placements, save precious child welfare dollars that have been wasted and, most importantly, help ensure that many children may not be needlessly abused in low-quality group homes.