Removed From Home — Living in Bureaucracy


BY THE SECOND HALF OF LAST YEAR, CHILDREN IN South Florida were entering the state dependency system by “leaps and bounds,” one official said.

Removed from intensely troubled homes and taken into custody by the Department of Children and Families, they were spread out through that bureaucracy, filling foster homes and other places where they found help (more or less).

The Children’s Network of Southwest Florida — the nonprofit agency responsible for child welfare services in Lee, Collier, Charlotte, Hendry and Glades counties — scrambled to accommodate the influx. In August, it was serving about 1,300 children in the region, including those receiving in-home care; by January, that number was close to 1,700.

More than 1,000 had been removed from their homes, the most in the system since 2009, records show. That includes those who went to live with licensed foster parents, in a group home, or with family and friends.

Above: Paul and Wendy Vernon are currently providing foster care for three children. Left: Case worker Dora Cario. VANDY MAJOR / FLORIDA WEEKLY Above: Paul and Wendy Vernon are currently providing foster care for three children. Left: Case worker Dora Cario. VANDY MAJOR / FLORIDA WEEKLY“I think we just desperately need more good foster parents — (but) not just anybody,” said Cape Coralresident Wendy Vernon, co-president of the SWFL Foster & Adoptive Parent Association. The process requires an extensive background check and training.

Teenagers especially have trouble finding foster parents.

“Generally, I think people tend to take younger children, which is a shame because the vast majority of them are tremendous kids,” said David Brown, who heads the foster care programs for Children’s Network.

The spike in kids coming into the dependency system followed highly publicized deaths of children who had been under DCF supervision, which generally occurred in the first half of last year. A Lee County boy who had been under DCF supervision was reported dead in October after being wrapped tightly in a blanket. Such cases may have spurred people to call in more cases to the state hotline and put pressure on DCF investigators to be quicker to remove kids from homes that could potentially be dangerous, officials and child advocates suggested.

“That’s our major hypothesis,” said Larry Rein, head of ChildNet in Palm Beach County, the nonprofit responsible for child welfare services there.

The beginning of the school year, a lack of social services — especially for parents suffering from drug abuse and mental health problems, child advocates said — and other factors may have added to the number of children needing welfare services.

Magistrate Steven Studybaker manages cases for the dependency court in Lee County, including daily shelter hearings. A clerk told him that the court had opened about 90 cases through the beginning of March — double that of last year.

The numbers of kids in the system remains high, even if the rates of their arrival has started to taper off, leading to a range of challenges. Investigators and case managers may have less time to focus on individual cases. Agencies also report that an increasing number of children have been placed outside counties where they lived.

“The most important thing that the local community can do is either foster or to talk to and help us recruit more foster parents,” said Larry Rein, head of ChildNet in Palm Beach County, the nonprofit responsible for child welfare services there.

More than 100 children from Palm Beach were placed in neighboring counties last year because there was nowhere else to put them, said Charles Bender, executive director of Place of Hope in West Palm Beach.

Shuffled to other counties, they likely change schools, separating them from friends and resources they may have become accustomed to. The distance makes it more difficult to schedule parent visitations, crucial to eventually reuniting them with their children. And it creates bureaucratic challenges that make an already bulky system even more unwieldy.

“Everything becomes much more difficult and it just doesn’t operate as smoothly,” said ChildNet’s Mr. Rein.

Where home is and isn’t

Shuffling families around also makes it more difficult to place siblings together in the same home.

“One of the more common concerns is, ‘I haven’t seen my brother and sister in a while,’” Mr. Studybaker said.

West Palm Beach foster parent Dorothy Alvarez took a group of siblings into her care recently. They had been split up.

“When they came in they didn’t have any homes in Palm Beach to place them, not together or separate, really,” she said.

Now they’re back in Palm Beach, though still split up. Sometimes they see each other, but saying goodbye is hard.

“There’s just crying usually and holding on,” Ms. Alvarez said. “That’s the big challenge because it’s heartbreaking and you have to be strong for that, you know?”

Case managers have also taken on greater workloads as they work to keep children on a path towards going back to their biological parents, or being adopted, if possible. In Southwest Florida, 132 children were adopted in 2013 and 260 were reunified with a parent or caretaker.

“We got a lot of calls after hours and during business hours,” said Dora Cario, case manager with Lutheran Services, a nonprofit under contract with Children’s Network.

One call she took in December was about a large group of siblings, from toddler to teenager, who were being physical abused. They couldn’t be placed together.

“I know the older ones have it hard — harder, I should say — because they know what’s going on,” Ms. Cario said.

South Florida

Officials found the trend mostly took place in South Florida, said Mr. Rein and others. In Palm Beach County, for instance, removals (kids removed from their home for at least 24 hours) doubled to about 1,000 in 2013.

But statewide, removals and total kids in out-of-home care declined last year after peaking in 2011 and 2012. That corresponds with the high-profile Barahona child murder case, pointed out Maria Bond, director of Foster & Adoptive Parents Association in West Palm Beach. It began in February 2011 and involved adoptive parents in Miami- Dade County. Ms. Bond suggests when that case goes to trial, as expected this year, its sensational nature could lead to another uptick in kids coming into the system.

“Typically one big case will do it, or a number of cases where DCF had been involved,” she said. “If you’re an investigator or administrator with the department, who wants to take any chances? I personally think that’s the toughest job to have.

“Regardless of whether it’s DCF administration or society, it is still a pendulum swing. When something happens, there’s a kneejerk reaction and no one wants to be at fault in another tragedy happening.”

Better times

Cape Coral residents Wendy and Paul Vernon have fostered 26 children over the years, some for only a few hours. Others for years.

One 3-year-old came to them “really non-functional.” He couldn’t walk, talk or eat properly. But he improved. One evening sticks in Ms. Vernon’s memory.

“He didn’t know there was a moon,” she recalled. “He didn’t know there was a sky. The first time we went outside and he pointed up at the sky and said, ‘Moon,’ I wanted to scream like I was on a mountaintop.”

Some of the children they’ve fostered may not remember who she is, Ms. Vernon says, which is OK with her.

No matter how long they stay, “They take a part of you — but they leave a part behind also,” she said.

One 9-year-old, just removed from his home, arrived at the Vernons around 10:30 p.m. He would only sit sobbing in a chair. He had to be up early for court, so Ms. Vernon tucked him in to bed and gave him a teddy bear.

In the morning his demeanor had changed. He said he had slept well and told Ms. Vernon that he thought his bed had enough room for a few other kids like him.

“Those funny little things, they don’t leave you,” she said.

For foster children, memories are just as wide ranging, and each story is unique, said 22-year-old Kenisha Anthony. At age 5, she was removed from her parents because of an addiction they still struggle with.

Growing up in Miami, she bounced around from an abusive aunt to living with her sister and the sister’s abusive boyfriend to finally finding a foster parent as a teenager — only to age out of the system at 18 while still in high school, having fallen behind while moving about.

But she made it to graduation (“the hardest time of my life”) and is attending college in Miami while volunteering for Florida Youth SHINE, an advocacy group made up of former foster children.

“For me when I look back on it, when you’ve been through so much — it’s hard and it’s heartbreaking,” she said. “You’re young and you look at everybody else and you’re like, ‘dang why did my life have to turn out like this? Why did I have to go through all of these things?’ You think to yourself, even if you’re crying and feeling down: you don’t have nobody. You’re the pilot of your own life. You have to pick yourself up, you have to find your way, you have to learn how to accept things and learn from them regardless how bad, how heartbreaking they were. You have to make a difference for yourself and prove them wrong and prove yourself wrong.”

Child protective investigators

After a call is placed to the state hotline, DCF child protective investigators are responsible for removing kids from dangerous homes.

But that doesn’t mean they decided to start removing more of them in reaction
to critical media reports last year.

“We, as a region, didn’t look at the child deaths or negative publicity and put out some kind of edict,” said Dennis Miles, southeast regional managing director of child protective investigators for DCF, which includes Palm Beach County. “What we’ve always said is you’ve gotta look at each single case individually.

But he adds that investigators could be influenced by the reports. “It may in the short term have some effect on removal rates,” he said. “Also the communities are reading those articles.

There’s a heightened sense in the community after a child death. So we do get some additional calls where we do see the concerns that are reported to us and we make removals.”

For investigators, walking the line between when to remove a child from a
situation and let him stay can be tricky, said Palm Beach investigator Meredith Gray. She works with families who are often in crisis mode at the moment she arrives.

“I personally, I don’t remove very much,” she said. “I have to say that’s the last thing I want to do. I try not to let the media or anything get to me because we do have a bad reputation in the media. The public perceives us as getting a case, a report, and we go remove the children. (But) we put in services, we try to keep the child safe in their home.” Investigators often have to face a quandary, Mr. Miles said.

“Are we ripping people away from their families or leaving children in unsafe environments that may lead to a tragedy? It’s something we talk about and train constantly on that very delicate balance. The only way to approach it is on a case by case basis.”

Reform follows deaths

A DCF-commissioned report released last November examined 40 child deaths. They accounted for “slightly start removing more of them in reaction to critical media reports last year.

“We, as a region, didn’t look at the child deaths or negative publicity and put out some kind of edict,” said Dennis Miles, southeast regional managing director of child protective investigators for DCF, which includes Palm Beach County. “What we’ve always said is you’ve gotta look at each single case individually.

But he adds that investigators could be influenced by the reports.

“It may in the short term have some effect on removal rates,” he said. “Also the communities are reading those articles. There’s a heightened sense in the community after a child death. So we do get some additional calls where we do see the concerns that are reported to us and we make removals.”

For investigators, walking the line between when to remove a child from a situation and let him stay can be tricky, said Palm Beach investigator Meredith Gray. She works with families who are often in crisis mode at the moment she arrives.

“I personally, I don’t remove very much,” she said. “I have to say that’s the last thing I want to do. I try not to let the media or anything get to me because we do have a bad reputation in the media. The public perceives us as getting a case, a report, and we go remove the children. (But) we put in services, we try to keep the child safe in their home.”

Investigators often have to face a quandary, Mr. Miles said.

“Are we ripping people away from their families or leaving children in unsafe environments that may lead to a tragedy? It’s something we talk about and train constantly on that very delicate balance. The only way to approach it is on a case by case basis.” moree than a third of reports of child fatalitiesities possibly related to child maltment maltreatment received by DCF in the first sevenn months of 2013,” a widely circud circulated DCF memo read.

Drugrug abuse, chronic mental health problemsblems and domestic violence were the leading problems in those houses. households.

“Their deaths were unimaginable and shockingcking to the conscience. Some were beaten,”en,” wrote Perry Thurston, leader of Floridalorida House Democratic Caucus, in a witheringthering letter to Gov. Rick Scott in December.ember. “Some suffocated or starved. Manyny were toddlers or infants. For all of them,m, the misery and abuse that defined theirr lives and deaths is impossible to comprehend.”prehend.”

Mr.r. Thurston took Gov. Scott to task for thehe deaths, alluding to his 2011 meato measure to cut $179 million from DCF’s budget.get. That severe cut didn’t end up happening,pening, but hundreds of the agency’s workerskers were laid off.

Now,ow, the governor and legislators are workingking to make a host of improvets. improvements. Florida senators in the Children, Familiesilies and Elder Affairs committee are sponsoring three bills to better serve children.dren. Their measures include creating creatan an advisory group to the state on childd welfare policy, better training for investigatorsstigators and care for “medically complexplex children.”

Sen.n. Nancy Detert, R-Venice, whose districtrict includes Charlotte County, is sponsoringnsoring bill 7074. It includes a measure mearequiring requiring DCF to put up a website that includes facts about child deaths and create a team to analyze deaths involvinglving children.

In addition, Gov. Scott is proposing a $31.91.9 million increase for child proon protection services, calling it a “historic increaseease to DCF funding.”

Thehe money would be used to hire moree than 400 child protective investirs investigators with the goal of reducing casels caseloads to 10 per investigator in a 30-day period.od.

Childhild protective investigator Mr. Mileses said of Gov. Scott’s proposal, “That’sat’s literally a game changer. We’ll be ableble to lower the caseloads that each of ourur CPIs is carryingcarrying. Everything good happens when caseloads are down. It’s the be all end all.”

But the services for kids will be lopsided unless funding is also increased for the case managers who take over after investigators are finished with their job. There are also calls for additional funds to help with problems like drug abuse, said Mr. Rein of ChildNet- Palm Beach.

“The governor has a proposal to increase (funding for) protective investigation. But if you increase that and you don’t increase it for case management, you’re going to make things even worse,” he said. “The state needs to invest in case management resources and the money to increase the services the kids need, be they residential or behavioral health resources.”

And before investigators turn a child over to the state, DCF should redouble efforts to ensure parents are taking advantage of social services that could help them keep their children, said Robin Rosenberg, director of Florida’s Children First, a statewide advocacy organization.

“We need to follow up and make sure families actually engage in these services,” she said, whether a financial training seminar or visits with a therapist. “We really need to have a better control on what we call ‘service tracking’ and making sure there’s follow through. I think that is a big gap that needs to be filled.” ¦

— Athena Ponushis contributed to this report

The Children’s Network of Southwest Florida handles child welfare cases for the state in Lee,Charlotte, Collier, Hendry and Glades counties

>> Removals (children removed from
home for more than 24 hours)
2009: 731
2010: 507
2011: 616
2012: 709
2013: 777

>> Statewide removals
2009: 13,321
2010: 13,169
2011: 14,928
2012: 14,278
2013: 13,817

>> Adoptions in a year
2011: 155
2012: 94
2013: 132

>> Reunifications with parents/
caretakers in a year
2012: 249
2013: 260

— Source: DCF Child Welfare Services Trend Report

Learn more about becoming a foster parent

>> Children’s Network of Southwest Florida: (855) 933 KIDS or

>> Children’s Network of Southwest Florida: 226-1524 or

>> Wendy Vernon and her husband Paul are co-presidents of the Southwest Florida Foster & Adoptive Parent Association. They have also fostered more than two-dozen children. Ms. Vernon often speaks with new or those interested in being foster parents about what it takes and what it’s like. She can be reached at 634-8906.

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Alexia Nechayev

FYS Events & Meeting Chair
(Palm Beach)

Hello, My name is Alexia Nechayev. I am 25 years old and I am an alumna of Florida International University where I received my B.A. in Psychology. My future career goal is to be a Lawyer. I was in care for about one year from age 17 to 18. Prior to entering care, I only knew about the negative stigma regarding foster care and while in care that narrative was unfortunately my experience.

In school I felt like I was on display because my status in care was broadcast to other students and in my placement behavior was leveraged for “privileges” that should be a natural right of all children. Because I did not know my rights I did not know that what I was experiencing was wrong. Today this is exactly why I advocate, because I don’t want this to be the same for other youth who are experiencing foster care.

This is my second year on the FYS Statewide Board and I’m happy to be the Events and Meetings Chair this year because my main goal through advocacy is to reach as many people as possible. My favorite thing as a board member is to see how comfortable members become while working together. The community needs to know that youth in foster care are real people, going through some of the hardest moments of their life and youth need to know that their voice is powerful. I believe that we have to speak up and bring these issues to people’s attention so that they do not forget us. Advocacy, education and consistency is the only way.

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