The number of Florida children in the state's foster-care system has reached its highest level since 2008, driven by both a spike in the number of kids being removed from their homes and a drop in the number being discharged after a stint in foster care.
In the last two years months, the number of children in what's also called "out-of-home care" has reached 22,004 statewide, up from 17,591 in 2013.
These and other trends are included in a report developed by the Department of Children and Families for a recent meeting of the state's privatized community-based care organizations, which oversee foster care and adoption services.
Child-welfare professionals say there are multiple reasons for the surge, among them the state's new method for assessing risks to a child's safety. The new methodology involves looking past a single incident that prompts a visit from a child protective investigator to the likelihood of danger down the road.
"The safety methodology requires that the investigators ask a lot more questions regarding (a family's) past history," said Mark Jones, CEO of the Community Partnership for Children, which serves Volusia, Flagler and Putnam counties. "The more questions they're asking, the more red flags they're seeing, and they're seeing that children may not be safe for the long term."
DCF Assistant Secretary for Child Welfare Janice Thomas agreed.
"In our previous practice, we did (put) a lot of focus on what was happening right then, specifically what had been reported to the hotline," she said. "Now we are trying to take a different lens to that family and include any kind of prior history that we have."
Jones, who said his agency had seen a spike of 35 percent in out-of-home placements over the last nine months, also noted that over time, the number of children in the system typically varies.
For instance, he said, the last spike came in 2012, due to the state's prescription-drug epidemic. The Legislature responded to concerns about so-called "pill mills" earlier this decade by cracking down on prescription-drug abuse, leading to more child-protection actions.
"Every three or four years, we see the pendulum swing, from family preservation to child safety," Jones said. "I think it's got less to do with methodology and more to do with the focus in the media, specifically on child safety and child deaths."
A wave of media reports on child deaths in 2013 culminated in sweeping new legislation that went into effect a year ago this week.
"The cultural environment that we have right now is one where no one wants a kid to die, ever," said Mike Watkins, chief executive officer of Big Bend Community Based Care. "And the easiest way to make sure kids don't die is to remove them. I think the department and pockets, certain communities like Miami, Broward and West Palm Beach, are extremely risk-averse and decide to remove the child if there's any question."
Watkins also pointed to the fact that the state's population has increased since 2008, when the number of people moving to Florida fell due to the recession. "Now that's picked back up," he said.
Many agree that another factor is high turnover among child protective investigators at DCF and the six sheriff's offices that handle child-protection cases, and among case managers at the community-based care organizations.
The 2014 child-welfare reform law was accompanied by an increase of $21.2 million for new child-protective investigators. However, because there is still a high rate of turnover among the CPIs, as they're known, many are relatively new and more likely to err on the side of removing a child from the home.
And while the community-based care organizations got $10 million in new funding last year and $29.1 million in new funding this year, they say it won't meet the need caused by the uptick of children in foster care.
"It will not be enough," Watkins said. "The new dollars don't take in the projections we're seeing."
Former state Sen. Ron Silver, who handles legislative affairs for Our Kids, the community-based care lead agency in Miami, agreed.
"We're very grateful for what they've done," he said. "But that was catch-up time. They gave us more money, but they had not given us (increased) money for a long period of time."
According to DCF, between May 2013 and July 2014, the number of children receiving Our Kids in-home services in Miami-Dade and Monroe counties increased more than 63 percent, while the number in out-of-home care increased nearly 36 percent.
The increased numbers also have revealed statewide gaps in family services that allow children to stay with their parents after verified findings of abuse or neglect.
Christina Spudeas, executive director of the advocacy group Florida's Children First, said she found the most troubling aspect of the DCF report to be the fact that "in-home services to prevent removal have declined since a peak in 2012.”
"The key to successfully leaving children in the home after an allegation of abuse or neglect is to have the right services provided to the family at the right time, with sufficient oversight," Spudeas said. "If the lead agencies are not working hard to have those services in place, then they are part of the problem."
But DCF's Thomas, who has worked in child welfare for more than 30 years, said the new methodology was still being implemented and would ultimately succeed.
"The practice we've established is the best I've ever seen," she said. "It's the best we've ever practiced in Florida, in my opinion. People are still learning it."