TALLAHASSEE (CBSMiami/NSF) - Lawmakers and the Florida Department of Children and Families are looking to increase accountability and improve standards at group homes for foster children.
At least part of the focus comes after published report which found that teens at a number of Broward County group homes were involved in drugs, violence, prostitution and truancy --- despite the presumption that the youths went into group care because they were troubled and needed types of intervention that foster families couldn't provide.
Taxpayer money goes to group homes, but not directly. In Broward County, for example, the Department of Children and Families pays ChildNet, a community-based care lead agency that in turn pays group homes as subcontractors.
Senate Children Families and Elder Affairs Chairwoman Eleanor Sobel, D-Hollywood, said she wants more accountability from the group homes.
"We're giving the (community-based care lead agencies) money, taxpayer dollars, and if we are responsible for these kids now, what are we doing?" she said. "Why are we failing our kids?"
House Children, Families & Seniors Chairwoman Gayle Harrell, R-Stuart, said she plans to examine "the dynamics of group homes" during the 2016 legislative session. Committee meetings are scheduled to start next week in advance of the session, which starts in January.
"Our CBCs (community-based care agencies) basically do a great job," Harrell said. "We need to make sure that they are accountable and that they hold their subcontractors accountable. I think we're going to be looking at that whole question this fall."
In a statement, ChildNet Chief Executive Officer Emilio Benitez said he could not comment on current investigations, but he defended the degree of supervision in the group homes he oversees.
"Children in group homes are there to learn independent living skills and experience normalcy," he noted. "All children and adolescents are monitored and carefully supervised, but residential care facilities are not a juvenile-detention facility, and these children are not under lock and key."
Benitez also pointed to recent discussions between the Department of Children and Families and the state's group homes "to assess the current policies and collaborate on any changes or enhanced measures we need to be taking moving forward to protect all children in our care."
The Department of Children and Families is updating its rules for group homes for the first time in 30 years. The rule-making process will put new standards in place at Florida's 287 group homes, which care for about 11 percent of foster youths statewide. The homes range from 50-bed facilities staffed by three shifts of caregivers to arrangements where half a dozen kids live with a married couple acting as house-parents.
The rule-making process is aimed at trying to bring more uniformity to what is supposed to be a short-term solution for children in state care.
Harrell said it's important for lawmakers to understand how group homes work.
"There are good group homes," she said. "There are not-so-good group homes. And how do you evaluate that? Making sure we have accountability in the system is really what we're going to be looking at."
Christina Spudeas, executive director of the advocacy group Florida's Children First, said the problems at group homes aren't confined to Broward County.
"There are many other group homes in various parts of Florida where children are not properly supervised, given needed services or provided the safe, stable, nurturing setting that they need," she said. "There should be full accountability across the board for how state dollars are spent and especially there should be a look at the outcomes --- how are the children doing in their care?"
The News Service of Florida's Margie Menzel contributed to this report.
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