National Newswire

Florida Aims for More Than Safety,
in Numbers

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They say two is a coincidence, and three is a trend. But there's no coincidence in the fact that Florida's Department of Children and Families has led the nation in adoptions for the last two years, breaking state records both years. The CWLA member agency has made it a goal to halve the number of children in foster care by 2012. So far, so good: since the baseline count in December 2006, Florida has 33% fewer children in out-of-home care. The initiative was inspired by the Casey Family Programs 2020 Strategy, which has the same goal but a different deadline. Sheldon points out, "The idea is not meeting this arbitrary mathematical goal, but it's about doing it in the right way for kids."

This means more than safety, he explains. A child would be safe if he or she were kept in a room alone and fed three meals a day, but that's not the type of life DCF wants to provide for the children it serves. It even wants to do better than foster care. "Growing up in foster care is not normal," Sheldon asserts. But in order to have children grow up in families, DCF needed families. How did the department find them? "By educating people who are even peripherally thinking about adoption about what's available," Sheldon says. A blitz of public service announcements caught the attention of potential adoptive parents, and DCF courted them with an array of supports, including maintenance subsidies, health coverage, and college tuition waivers.

Increasing adoptions in the state has only been part of the plan, however. In Northeast Florida, where the regional progress is even better than statewide, Alachua and Duval counties are piloting the Foster Care Redesign. Regional director Nancy Dreicer says that protective investigators respond to hotline calls by visiting the families in question within 24 hours. "When they go out there, it could be a total false alarm, it could have some indicators, or it could be abuse or neglect," Dreicer says. Often meeting the investigators at the home are caseworkers from the two private agencies that serve these counties--Partnership for Strong Families and Family Support Services, both CWLA members--who talk with families about what services might be helpful.

Many of these services are now centrally located in Alachua and Duval, with neighborhood centers where families can find help with drug rehabilitation, employment assistance, anger management, and more all under one roof. In Duval, the neighborhood center is on a college campus; in Alachua, it's at a library. The realignment has put DCF in constant contact with families whose children can safely remain at home with some support. "They would rarely have gotten many services in the past, and now we're able to serve them," Dreicer explains. "As we've put less kids into foster care, the same number of workers can work with the families."

Families help caseworkers--who have often become prevention workers--create a case plan based on their strengths and weaknesses. Dreicer admits it's taken work to change people's perceptions of DCF from the agency that removes children to the agency that keeps families together. Once families are convinced that workers are there to help, they are more apt to ask for help. "We've seen many more instances where the family picks up the phone and calls the workers," Dreicer says.

She is passionate about changing the system not just in her region, and not just in Florida, but across the nation. "Foster care is not the overwhelming answer for this country," she says. The key in Florida, Dreicer and Sheldon agree, has been a Title IV-E waiver that has allowed flexibility in spending federal funds. "I don't think there's any doubt that the IV-E waiver has given us a tremendous leg up," Sheldon says. Dreicer wishes more states could get a waiver: "It's a great example of how public policy changes can impact in a very positive way."

In the meantime, Florida continues building a full continuum of care that gets children out of care and into permanent homes. Sheldon is cognizant that positive change ripples through the system: "This whole concept is not just about reducing children in out-of-home care, it's about permanency, it's about adoption, it's about providing services in the home, it's about preparing them for when they age out, it's about tying it all together."

Meghan Williams is a contributing editor. See a related Children's Voice story on Casey Family Programs' 2020 Strategy in the May/June 2009 issue.

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