'We did a bad job': Florida child welfare chief vows reforms after USA TODAY investigation

Suzanne Hirt, USA TODAY

Florida’s child welfare chief announced Tuesday that in response to a USA TODAY investigation, the Florida Department of Children and Families will establish specialized teams to investigate child abuse allegations against foster parents and to review the agency’s decisions in those cases.

In a meeting with the Florida Senate’s Children, Families and Elder Affairs Committee in Tallahassee, DCF Secretary Chad Poppell confirmed USA TODAY’s findings and said his department assessed its handling of the “heartbreaking” cases of child sexual abuse at the hands of foster parents that the series brought to light.

“I won’t belabor the point, the quality of the work was poor. We did a bad job,” Poppell said, adding that a quality assurance team has since analyzed DCF’s choices at every step in the process. “Each one of those (cases) may have a dozen decision points along the way. The overall review indicated in those cases, roughly half the time on all those decisions, we made the wrong one.”

USA TODAY’s two-part investigation, published in October and December, revealed that after Florida lawmakers rewrote the state’s child welfare rules in 2014 to make it easier to seize children from their parents, thousands of kids flooded the foster care system. Faced with a shortage of foster parents, DCF sent some children to live in unsafe homes where they were physically and sexually abused.

Chad Poppell, the head of Florida's Department of Children and Families, said Tuesday the agency will institute new policies after a USA TODAY investigation found children were being placed in foster homes where abuse was taking place. "We did a bad job,” Poppell said.
Chad Poppell, the head of Florida's Department of Children and Families, said Tuesday the agency will institute new policies after a USA TODAY investigation found children were being placed in foster homes where abuse was taking place. "We did a bad job,” Poppell said.

The series also highlighted how DCF blames mothers who are battered by an intimate partner and takes away their children. Some of the mothers believe their children were abused in foster care. Poppell indicated that a quality assurance team is reviewing the agency’s actions in the mothers’ cases.

More: Florida took thousands of kids from families, then failed to keep them safe.

More: Florida blames mothers when men batter them – then takes away their children

In the fiscal year 2019-20, there were 92 children with allegations of sexual abuse involving foster parents, Poppell said, yet only six were verified – even though 70% of the allegations were made by credible sources, a group that includes professionals such as teachers, physicians and law enforcement personnel.

To prevent future missteps, DCF will expand its Crisis Incident Rapid Response Team, originally established to investigate child deaths, to evaluate the agency’s work in cases that involve accusations of sexual abuse against foster parents, Poppell said. Experts will review those cases, offer corrective feedback and provide a recommendation on whether a child should be returned to a home where abuse was alleged.

The department also will establish a Special Investigation Unit to look into all allegations of child maltreatment in foster and group homes and by staffers at DCF and its contracted agencies.

Poppell told lawmakers there are a “million great things that happen in the system every day,” but noted that the newspaper investigation prompted the department to revisit some of its policies.

“I think the article highlighted this appropriately, and we need to respond,” he said.

Following the publication of USA TODAY’s investigation, Sen. Lauren Book, a Democrat from Plantation and the committee chair, wrote Poppell to express her alarm that children were subjected to abuse that could have been avoided.

“The USA TODAY investigative series will serve as a blueprint for me to follow in examining these issues,” Book wrote.

Her letter suggested a zero-tolerance policy for placing children in homes where abuse has been credibly alleged or suspected and asked that the state “race at ‘breakneck’ speed” to follow up with children who had spent time with foster parents suspected of abuse.

Children, Families and Elder Affairs Committee Chair Sen. Lauren Book leads a meeting of the body in the Senate Office Building on Jan. 12, 2021, in Tallahassee, Fla.
Children, Families and Elder Affairs Committee Chair Sen. Lauren Book leads a meeting of the body in the Senate Office Building on Jan. 12, 2021, in Tallahassee, Fla.

“I just want to make it clear – young children when they disclose abuse, they don’t lie,” Book said at Tuesday’s meeting. “These are pieces of information that they cannot make up unless they’ve had to live through or endure (them).”

Poppell’s presentation confirmed that when Florida changed its approach to child welfare, the agency’s investigations into biological families became more intensive, took longer to complete and “absolutely” resulted in an increase of kids in foster care.

“The goal wasn’t to get more children in care, it was obviously to make sure children were safer,” Poppell said.

Yet by 2017, the state needed space for 6,000 more foster kids, USA TODAY’s investigation found. Foster care agencies crammed kids into overcrowded homes and sent nearly 200 to foster parents previously accused of abusing or neglecting the kids in their care. DCF also failed to address biological parents’ lack of access to drug treatment, mental health care, or domestic violence services – the root problems driving child removals.

The number of children removed from their parents each month has fallen back down to pre-2014 levels but remains higher than the national average, Poppell said. Abuse of children in foster care has been in decline since 2007, and Florida’s numbers are below the federal target.

But department officials should be more in tune with what’s happening to kids in the agency’s care, he said. “DCF shouldn’t be finding out about these things in the newspaper.”

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Florida child welfare chief vows reforms after USA TODAY investigation