To understand the actual impact of the privatization of the Child Welfare System we must to look at the individual casualties along with the data. After 20 years those affected the most are now adults and they are speaking out. Reviews of situations and patterns can be analyzed but the driving force to learn and correct this failure comes from those most damaged.
The majority of Florida’s Privatization roll out and installation of child welfare services were up and running by 2005. Starting in 1998 and passed legislatively 2 years later, Florida was the second state to privatize child welfare services so completely and thoroughly. Depending on who you speak to and their role, there were a few successes and multiple failures.
Twenty years later Florida has continued to tout Adoption and Permanency outcomes but what is the reality of those outcomes? Yes, child recruitment was increased as the Heart Gallery Movement sweep through, along with National programs like Wendy’s Wonderful Recruiters. The word Unadoptable was dispelled and the trending statement installed was “ Every Child Deserves a Forever Family”. Florida’s adoptions increased dramatically over previous years and the permanency for children within in 24 months of removal spiked up. Federal incentives and data numbers pushed private child welfare agencies to focus on meeting quotas. In the months heading into the end of each fiscal year, (June 30th ) adoption workers and managers in contracted agencies were being asked by lead agency management , “ Where are we at?”, “How many adoptions will we have?” As a program administrator, I remember specifically being asked to contact the the clerk of court and the private adoption attorneys daily on all adoption cases in which the consents had been issued to “push them”, and “ find the problem”. One day I was asked to drive over to the clerk of the court in downtown Clearwater to see what could be done to “speed up” the scheduling process. It was a well oiled wheel and there were no strategic delays. It was a daily and constant pressure. Adoptive Families who were lingering because of subsidy issues or child specific assessment issues were strongly encouraged to move full speed ahead and finalize their adoptions and then to later deal with any loose ends ends and issues. Spoken but mostly unspoken threats were held over Adoptive families punitively as they feared losing the children they were committed and attached to.Children who were not prepared to be adopted as the child welfare world pushed that task over to the Mental Health Providers, some having no knowledge of Adoption Practice.I remember clearly the day I was asked as an administrator in Adoption to tell 4 boys who had been in care a majority of their lives and whom I had never met ( ages 6 through 11) that the State had terminated their parents rights ( 5 months earlier) and they were now going to be placed with an adoptive family. I was horrified as the therapist stated he could not tell them because he didn’t want to break up his therapeutic relationship with them! The case worker who was new to Adoptions had no clue as to what to begin to say. Fast forward and I know these children today along with their adoptive family.This all caused more trauma, discord and chaos in their lives. Their journey continues to be difficult as one child is in a residential placement, and the family, now divorced, and has learned the intricacies of the Juvenile Justice System and School System.They also experienced the total lack of support adoption services.
Interviewing Adult Children, Adoptive and Foster Families and Child Welfare Workers for this article,many share common experiences and beliefs. Responses to a recent survey reflect the personal experiences and struggles of privatization :
- Different agencies interpret the law differently and there is no consistency.
- Quotas need to be met and there are too many top dogs, not enough workers. Top dogs making decisions for kids they don’t even know. Kids were never the priority.
- As a Case Manager the “best interest of the child” was never first. Numbers were always first.
- Family and Child safety and stability are no longer the goal but money and subjective unrealistic expectations from the frontline is.
- Lack of communication and inconsistencies were the biggest issues.
- Under trained staff, under utilized resources, recycling of unproductive/unreliable providers and professionals.
- Poor placements, lack of support for both case workers and foster parents.
- My child was moved many times, causing more trauma each time and was abused in care worse than with his biological family.
In the demand to improve permanency, 24 month timelines cases were separated into on track cases and off track cases. For the children who were ‘off track” they were put onto the back burner. As recruitment efforts grew and families inquired on children, these cases moved at a crawl, some eventually making it across the finish line. For many of those children, permanency was delayed all together and they aged out.
Privatization is a reactionary system. Children, like my son Davion who were born into care were placed in marginal homes and never given permanency for many years. At age 7, Davion was finally given an adoption goal and his mother’s parental rights terminated. This was done was not because of a driving oversight but as a reaction when the marginal foster home in which he resided for 7 years was suddenly shut down for inadequate supervision (too many children supervising themselves resulting in a child almost drowning) . As an angry and rageful 7 year old black male, Davion bounced through multiple placements (over 30 )until he asked me to adopt him at age 17. The basic requirements for recruitment were met; a heart gallery picture , state photolisting and a few recruitment events but not what was needed to find Davion family. No one truly really knew him as a child who while being warehoused was abused multiple times except a church Mentor who stepped in at age 14 and until this day is in our lives. To the System of Privatization Davion was just another child moving from placement to placement, overmedicated to control his behaviors and learning to bury his pain layer upon layer. No family finding was done, just a checkbox form called Accurint , which said No Relatives Located. I consider that to be one of the biggest failures.Later when I adopted Davion, we attended a biological family reunion not 15 minutes from our house. Over 100 family members were there including Davion’s 5th grade teacher who unbeknownst to anyone was his 2nd cousin. Talk about failure…all those years he bounced through trauma and yet there were solid family members right up the road. In privatization this was what happened to so many … children lingered and managed but often forgotten.
Case manager issues abound in privatization. Many seasoned workers left the field looking for stability or to retrain for other jobs. For twenty years turn over has been a constant concern with rates are as high as 80% in some areas of Florida. This is a contributing factor to many high caseloads averaging statewide 24-31 where as national best practice models dictate an average of 15 in order to ensure child safety and quality work.
In speaking to children from this system of care who are now young adults the themes remain consistent: multiple case managers,multiple placements, multiple schools, over medication and the feeling that no one knew them or listened to them. Trauma upon trauma continues to leave them feeling unsafe far into their adult years. This is not to say there are not caring committed workers, guardians, foster and adoptive families but never enough.
So as I hear of other states looking at complete privatization of Child Welfare , I cringe. I know what the process will take from our children and families and what the outcomes will be. Learn the actual realities from those whose live it everyday, not agencies top heavy with overpaid management and “data”. Spend time talking to children who have aged out or been adopted after 17 years in Foster Care and workers who are still surviving it despite having secondary PTSD and of course the Foster and Adoptive families who are still trying to pick up all the pieces.
Ensure you really listen.
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