Our country’s founding fathers knew all too well -- states are the laboratories for democracy.
Florida became one such laboratory when it comes to best practices in providing child welfare services. The state’s community-based care system offers useful insight into how states can better provide for the care and well-being of our most vulnerable children and families.
In the late 1990’s there were a record number of children being abandoned, neglected and abused in Florida. As a result lawmakers proposed an innovative approach -- transition Florida’s foster care system to a community-based model that would allow local business and community leaders to view these vulnerable children as their own and develop more innovative responses to protect our children and youth.
The idea received strong bipartisan support in the Florida Legislature. By 2005, Florida was the first state to fully transition its public foster care system to a network of homegrown, non-profit “community-based” agencies who provide foster and adoption services with strong oversight from the Florida Department of Children and Families (DCF).
A unique public-private partnership was forged.
The result: an impressive and marked decline in the use of foster care as a solution for a family in crisis. Today, Florida leads the country in adoptions out of foster care and has dramatically increased the number of intact families served.
Quietly, over the past decade, community-based care transformed Florida’s system from one of the nation's worst to one of the best.
The improvements are undeniable:
- For the last five years, more than 3,000 children adopted annually;
- The number of children in care has decreased by 10,000;
- Florida has eliminated the state-run system’s backlog of 30,000 child abuse investigations; and
- Florida has also decreased the number of children in group care settings by 36.2 percent since privatization.
The undisputed fact is, community-based care works.
You can see the vast improvement this unique system of care has made throughout Florida.
These improvements are due in large part to the Legislature’s investment in a community-based system of care and the partnership between the DCF and the non-profit community-based lead and provider agencies dedicated to providing foster and adoptive services in their communities.
Florida’s system shines so brightly that many other states are now adopting Florida’s model.
However, the reality is, while child welfare practices have improved, structural deficiencies exist that prevent the necessary and equivalent improvements in services and staff to meet the needs of the children in care and the caseworkers charged with their protection.
While DCF and the state’s child welfare agencies are committed to the swift removal of children from dangerous homes, the current rate of removals has resulted in the demand on Florida’s child welfare system climbing to the highest it has been since 2008.
For Florida’s child welfare system to continue being a leader in protecting children, lawmakers need to make a recurring commitment of funding dedicated to the core services budget for the community-based care agencies and child welfare service providers throughout the state who are responsible for the services for children in care.
The Florida Legislature’s commitment to our child welfare system and efforts to adopt policies that will help prevent tragedies is commendable. We are headed in the right direction. However, we will only see real change when the appropriate investment is made to consistently provide the resources needed to ensure Florida’s children receive everything they need, from appropriate health and dental care, to an education, and safe, permanent homes.
One thing is sure, we cannot delay. Making the appropriate investment in Florida’s system of care will save children’s lives.