By Bill Frye, Guest Columnist Orlando Sentinel, March 7, 2018 - When a young man decides to go on a rampage and kill as many students as he can, something has gone dreadfully wrong. The horrific shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School has generated intense debate over the most effective ways to prevent future acts of senseless violence in our schools and communities.
Much of what we’re hearing now is about gun control, law-enforcement procedures and mental-health programs. While these topics should be debated, there are also serious concerns that our child-welfare systems in Florida and throughout the nation are struggling to meet the needs of troubled youth, making it harder to access the resources and care that many children desperately need. The latest move by Congress, for example, will make the system more complicated and less effective when it comes to serving at-risk girls and boys.
In February, in a last-minute deal to fund the government, the U.S. House passed the Family First Prevention Services Act (House Resolution 5456), which will become law Oct. 1, 2019. Its implications are significant for a state like ours, where nearly 24,000 kids entered the system last year, either with a relative caregiver or a foster home. HR 5456 is intended to keep family units intact, giving states federal dollars to provide support services to families who are under investigation for neglect or abuse and are potentially facing the removal of their child.
The idea is that if parents can get the help they need, such as substance abuse treatment or mental-health counseling, fewer children will need to enter foster care. The bill is clear, however, that in situations where the child is in danger and a suitable family member isn’t available to provide care, the use of a foster home is appropriate. While these provisions make sense, HR. 5456 veers off track by limiting the options for children in foster-care settings.
The bill changes the landscape by removing traditional group homes as a placement option, allowing states to use federal funds for placing kids in foster homes or in qualified residential-treatment programs. Group homes like ours, the Florida Sheriffs Youth Ranches, that receive the majority of funding through private contributions, will continue to serve children even if the federal monies and state placements are eliminated. Many children in our programs are voluntarily placed by their parents or guardians.
However, our homes have been part of Florida’s foster-care system for nearly 50 years, a system that has struggled to keep up with the demand of children needing a place to call home. In a recent incident, caseworkers in Tampa had children sleeping in parked cars at a Wawa gas station, waiting to find a suitable place to go. The Department of Children and Families has been named in a class-action lawsuit primarily due to a shortage of foster homes in the southern region of the state.
If Florida can no longer place children in residential group homes because federal funding has been pulled, then what happens to the teen boy or girl whose life is similar to countless others we have helped over the past 60 years? What happens to the young person who has bounced from foster home to foster home but finds stability and success after coming to live at one of our cottage homes?
We are especially concerned about sibling groups. Homes like ours, Boys Town, Florida United Methodist Children’s Homes and St. Augustine Youth Services offer a way for brothers and sisters to stay together while taking care of other youth who need more care than they could receive in the average foster home but don’t belong in a highly restrictive treatment program. Under the Family First Prevention Services Act, these youth will have fewer places to go.
Fortunately, most kids in our child-welfare system will never do something like the Parkland shooting. But that doesn’t mean our system is where it should be. If anything, this is a reminder that caring for at-risk and troubled children should be an all-hands-on-deck approach. We need more qualified foster parents. We need to stop cutting Medicaid, which provides counseling and mental-health services for children. We need Congress to take a second look at HR 5456 to ensure we’re not removing a successful part of our system and calling it progress.
Bill Frye is the president of the Florida Sheriffs Youth Ranches, a residential group care program with four campuses for boys and girls. The Youth Ranches has operated in Florida since 1957.