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Senate Group Home Proposal Spurs Debate

TALLAHASSEE (CBSMiami/News Service of Florida) - A debate is brewing about a Senate proposal that could lead to some children in state care being placed in group homes instead of with foster families.

The proposal involves lawmakers' efforts to reform the child-welfare system, including keeping siblings together after their parents have lost custody. The group-home language is in a Senate child-welfare measure (SB 1666), which was scheduled to be heard Thursday in a committee but got postponed.

The measure says, "Reasonable efforts shall include short-term placement in a group home with the ability to accommodate sibling groups if such a placement is available."

But critics said that one sentence could lead to unforeseen consequences.

"The weight of the evidence is that group care is very hard on young children --- even high-quality group care," said Neil Boris, a child psychologist and professor at the University of Central Florida.

He also said that by the nature of the child-welfare system, "short-term placements" in a group home usually end up longer than expected.

"Once kids are placed, it's often an effective barrier to placing them in more permanent homes because the system then says, 'Well, at least these kids are safe,' " Boris said. "And even the most-well-organized agencies don't move kids out of care quickly. And so then you're looking at long stays, which we know impact (children's) social and emotional development."

And Carole Shauffer of the San Francisco-based Youth Law Center, who has fought against the use of group-home placements in Florida, predicted the bill language would cause them to proliferate.

"Once there is demand, people are going to open facilities to meet the demand, which means there will be many more kids in group care," Shauffer said. "(The Department of Children and Families) has been putting a lot of emphasis on getting babies out of group care …This language is designed to combat that."

Both Shauffer and Boris pointed to a 2005 study of Romanian orphans led by Charles Zeanah and Charles A. Nelson. The study found that when toddlers were placed with foster families, they were much more likely to form attachments with their caregivers than children who had been institutionalized.

"Almost all of them have been maltreated, either physically or sexually abused, or neglected physically or emotionally, or some combination of those things (before being removed from their family homes)," Zeanah said. "Once they're removed, we know that better quality care can reduce the harmful effects of what they've already experienced. …There is considerable evidence that better quality care can be provided and is provided in families rather than in group settings."

After meeting Zeanah and Shauffer, George Sheldon, the former state Department of Children and Families secretary who is now running for attorney general, moved to reduce the number of children under age 6 in group homes --- especially in those homes employing shift workers.

"It is not normal to change your parents every 8 hours," Sheldon said. "And that's particularly true for infants and toddlers."

As secretary, Sheldon cut the number of children under age 6 in group homes to 22 by December 2010. The number was back up to 146 in February 2014, according to the Department of Children and Families.

Supporters of the bill language said the quality of care depends on the group home --- and that the benefits of keeping siblings together make a big difference.

"I think it's a delicate balance," said Sam Bell, a former lawmaker and retired lobbyist who worked on children's services issues. "I do believe that there is serious merit in keeping siblings together, and if that can be done in a group home, and the group home is well-run, it probably is better than breaking them up and putting them in foster homes where they may or may not do well."

Bell, who sits on the board of the Children's Home Society, noted that he was speaking personally, not for the board.

Rep. Gayle Harrell, chairwoman of the House Healthy Families Subcommittee, led her chamber's efforts on the child-welfare reform measure and has no problem with the group-home language. Before she was elected to the Legislature in 2000, Harrell helped start the Hibiscus Children's Center on the Treasure Coast, which she gave as an example of a group home that provides a family atmosphere.

Shelley Katz, chairwoman of the board of the Florida Coalition for Children and chief operating officer of Children's Home Society of Florida, said some group homes use shift workers, "but I think that's more and more rare." She said more group homes are using longer shifts for staffers, or several days on and some days off. "So there are a variety of different staffing patterns, and I think for younger children, those alternative staffing patterns are better."

But at a meeting of Florida Youth Shine, the advocacy group for children who have been in foster care, only one of about 25 members spoke highly of his group home. It had just 6 boys in residence, he said, with a housemother and housefather instead of shift workers.

Most of the young adults described their former group homes as warehousing dozens of children, with locked kitchens, chronic theft and, sometimes, beatings by employees.

"They were pretty much like prisons," said Jose Rodriguez of his two former group homes in Orlando. "I saw staff beating kids."

According to the Department of Children and Families, group-home rates in Florida ranged from a low of $23.50 per day to a high of $543.42 per day for the 2012-13 fiscal year.

In contrast, the monthly rates paid to foster parents as of Jan. 1 are $429 for children ages 5 and younger, $440 for children ages 6 to 12, and $515 for teenagers ages 13 to 21.

Katz said the higher rates for the group homes are due to the services they provide.

"Group homes often provide levels of counseling and program support that foster families don't," she said. "One of the reasons children are placed at the group homes is because their needs are such that that particular type of programming can help address those needs in a way that's better able to meet their needs than a foster family. I think those decisions have to be made on an individual basis, and you can't necessarily base them on what the cost of that care is. You've got to look at what the child's best interests are, first and foremost."

Trudy Petkovich, president of the Florida State Foster/Adoptive Parent Association, said using just some of the money that goes for group-home placements would enable more foster families to adopt sibling groups.

"A group home is not a good place for any child," she said. "You don't attach in a group home."

Sheldon agreed that the bill language specifying the use of group homes as an option could lead to their resurgence after a period of decline.

"We had an old saying in the '70s (when Sheldon was a state representative) that the prison population would expand to fill the number of beds you have," he said. "There really is a pressure to keep the beds full."

Katz found the comparison unfortunate.

"I think it's very sad to be comparing group-home beds to prison beds," she said. "Group homes are not anything like prisons."

This report is by Margie Menzel with The News Service of Florida.

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