Strong Leadership, and a Smart Waiver, Transform Child Welfare in Florida

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Shortly after then-Gov. Jeb Bush named her to run the Florida Department of Children and Families in 1999, Kathleen Kearney changed the name of DCF’s Division of Family Safety and Preservation. She erased the last two words.

Said one top administrator at the time, “I don’t dare say the word ‘reunification’ in her presence.”

Everybody took the hint. The number of Florida children torn from their homes soared by 50 percent that year, the worst foster-care panic I’ve ever seen sweep through an entire state. 

Ultimately, the entire system collapsed. In 2002, when it was revealed that a four-year old foster child had been missing for 15 months, and was presumed dead, before anyone at DCF even noticed she was gone, Florida became the national symbol of child welfare failure.  

Today, that name change still is in effect. But Bush’s successor, Charlie Crist, brought new leaders to Florida DCF, and they did something much more important than change a name. They erased Kearney’s failed policies and turned Florida into a national leader in doing child welfare right.

DCF’s success under Crist was built upon the one good child welfare decision Jeb Bush made after replacing Kearney: He took a deal from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services that enabled the state to spend more flexibly its allotment of foster care funds. More on that below.

Crist, then a Republican and now an indepedent, named one of the state’s most popular Democrats, former Attorney General Bob Butterworth, to run DCF.  The joke at the time was that he wanted the Democrats to take the blame when DCF failed again. If that was the plan, the joke was on Crist.

Butterworth began transforming DCF with one simple step: He dragged the agency out of its bunker.

Like most child welfare agencies, DCF was in the habit of trying to hide its blunders behind “confidentiality” rules – policies that really shield agencies, not children.  Butterworth reversed that approach. 

Florida already was among the states with open court hearings in abuse and neglect cases. Under Butterworth, records opened up as well. Instead of opposing reporters when they went to court seeking records in high-profile cases, Butterworth sent DCF lawyers to stand with the journalists.  And when there was bad news, DCF leaders stopped trying to hide it and started notifying reporters themselves.  In one particularly egregious case, the suicide of foster child Gabriel Myers, possibly as a result of the misuse and overuse of psychiatric medication, DCF has devoted an entire section of its own website to the failure, and to what the agency learned. There even are links to news stories critical of the agency.

Of course, eventually you have to stop just admitting the mistakes and start fixing them. The policy of maximum permissible candor bought Butterworth, his able successor, George Sheldon, and their leadership team time to begin doing that. 

They spent a lot of that time listening to foster children, and they became convinced that many of them were victims of Kearney’s foster-care panic; they could have remained safely in their own homes had their own families gotten the right kinds of help.

That’s where Butterworth and Sheldon benefitted from the one thing Jeb Bush did right. He made Florida the only state to accept, statewide, a five-year waiver from federal funding restrictions on how the state spent its portion of in federal foster care aid under Title IV-E (well over $100 million a year).

In other states, this money can be used only for foster care. And they are reimbursed a large share of the cost of foster care for every eligible child they take away. While this does not mean states “make money on foster care,” it can create a perverse incentive to resort to foster care even when better options cost less in total dollars, because the feds are picking up so much of the tab.

Florida agreed to accept its foster care money as a flat grant, adjusted for inflation. In exchange, Florida is free to use the money for better alternatives, instead of just for foster care. And as Florida reduces foster care, it can keep the savings, as long as the money is plowed back into child welfare services.

That’s not the only way Florida’s children benefit. When the recession hit and the state legislature wanted to make deep cuts in child welfare spending, lawmakers were stopped in their tracks when they learned that, under the waiver, if they slashed state spending they’d lose all their federal money as well.

This is the same deal Jeb Bush’s brother wanted to offer every state without all the bother of a waiver – the deal that, as I reported on this Blog last month, would have left the states $5 billion better off by now than under the status-quo. But most states never got the chance, thanks to the entrenched opposition of America’s foster care-industrial complex, led by the Child Welfare League of America and the Children’s Defense Fund.

Other states were afraid to accept the deal even as a waiver. Michigan actually accepted it, put out press releases hailing its own decision and then chickened out at the last minute, leading to devastating child welfare budget cuts in that state.

But in Florida, DCF put the waiver to good use, bolstering services enough to cut both entries into foster care and the number of children in foster care on any given day by 35 percent between 2006 and 2009. Most important, independent evaluations, required by the waiver, show that even as foster care has been sharply reduced, child safety has improved. The success was striking enough to be highlighted by The New York Times.

A waiver doesn’t guarantee such success, and the lack of a waiver doesn’t make success impossible. But a waiver lets reform-minded administrators swim with the tide instead of against it.

Unfortunately, not-so-benign neglect from the foster-care industrial complex ensured that legislation to restore the authority of the Department of Health and Human Services to issue such waivers died during the lame duck session of Congress.  Odds are, having learned nothing from their $5 billion blunder they’ll try to “yes, but…” to death any attempt to restore waivers in the new Congress.

Richard Wexler is Executive Director of the National Coalition for Child Protection Reform