Florida Supreme Court to immigrant teens: just go away already

florida_supreme_court_building_2011The Florida Supreme Court ruled yesterday that the cases of immigrant children pending appeal should be dismissed as moot when they turn 18, even if the lower court erred when the child was still a minor and even if the error prevents the child from applying for Special Immigrant Juvenile status.

In October of 2014, OICL, a 17-year-old immigrant child in Florida, brought a petition for dependency alleging that his parents had abandoned him and that he had no legal custodian. The trial court, Judge James L. Martz, denied the petition in December 2014 and the matter was appealed to the Fourth DCA. The Fourth DCA ruled against the child and the matter was appealed to the Florida Supreme Court. FLSCT accepted the case in August 2015.

OICL turned 18 in January 2015.

After 13 months, FLSCT ruled that the matter became moot when OICL turned 18. The Court declined to find that the ancillary benefits of a dependency petition (including immigration status) were sufficient to defeat mootness. The Court also declined to find that the matter was capable of repetition yet evading review. Justices Polston, Quince, Canady, and Lewis were in the majority. Justices Labarga, Pariente, and Perry dissented.

The practical result is that any child petitioning for dependency close to their 18th birthday will not be able to seek appellate review. A judge ruling on those petitions will certainly know that when setting the cases, weighing the evidence, and making a decision. Immigrant children of a certain age have just had their right of access to a fair court system severely curtailed.

On August 16, 2016 the Florida Supreme Court accepted a second SIJ case for review, BRCM. In this case, the petitioner is well under 18. The issue in BRCM, and many of these cases, is that judges have become emboldened to sweep immigrant children out of their courtrooms as quickly as possible. In the case of BRCM, the hearing lasted only 8 minutes before the judge had ruled to dismiss the petition — no notice, no witnesses, no trial.

The Florida Supreme Court has the opportunity to clarify that all people who come before the courts are entitled to a fair and impartial hearing, and that violations of due process will not be tolerated just because of the age and immigration status of the petitioner. If it will not reconsider this harmful ruling, the Florida Supreme Court should direct lower courts to accept these cases for certiorari review, or order expedited briefing schedules to ensure further miscarriages of justice do not occur.

Florida Child Welfare Stats for August 2016: the expansion continues


The August numbers are out and it appears the Carroll expansion is slowing down, but continuing. OOHC numbers were slightly higher than projected this month, which may be due to lower discharges during the summer holidays. Though the line is flattening, removals are expected to continue to outpace discharges for the foreseeable future and only two regions are contracting.

The charts below show the numbers for each region, sorted from most expanding to most contracting. For more details, check the Dashboard.


The Northwest Region is expected to continue its expansion, with OOHC and IHC numbers coming in close to projected values. Relative and non-relative placements are expected to continue to expand, with all other placement types remaining steady. Removals are expected to largely outpace discharges, suggesting a continued expansion.
The Northeast Region appeared to be experiencing a slowdown to its expansion, but there is some evidence this month that the expansion will continue. OOHC came in higher than expected (projected 3348, actual 3431), while IHC reduced faster than expected (projected 1840, actual 1759). Relative placements are expected to continue to expand, while other placement types remain steady. Removals are expected to largely outpace discharges, suggesting the current expansion will continue.
The Suncoast Region continued its expansion this month, with OOHC and IHC numbers in line with predicted levels. Removals and discharges are highly seasonal in this region, but removals are expected to continue to outpace discharges except in the heavy adoption months of November and June, suggesting the expansion will continue.
The Central Region is experiencing a period of slowing expansion. Its OOHC numbers are lower than expected this month (projected 5203, actual 5189), and it reduced IHC by more than expected (projected 3078, actual 2984). Relative placements appear to have peaked in February 2016 and have been on the decline since. All other placement types are steady or increasing. Removals are expected to continue to outpace discharges, suggesting that the expansion, while slowing, will continue.
The Southern Region continued its contraction this month, hitting projections for both OOHC and IHC. Discharges in this region are highly seasonal, but expected to continue to equal or slightly outpace removals. The current contraction is expected to continue.
The Southeast Region’s contractions appears to be continuing, with OOHC and IHC numbers coming in close to projected values. Contractions appear most prominent in family foster placements. Discharges are highly seasonal in the Southeast Region, but are expected to equal or outpace removals.

What’s causing the Manatee County foster care crisis? By the numbers.

Manatee County is holding a town hall on 8/30 to discuss the drastic expansion of its out-of-home care population. According to news reports, the expansion has been driven largely by an ongoing heroin epidemic. I thought it would be useful to share what the Dashboard says about the situation. The spike may have more to do with changes in policy than with the rise in drug usage among residents.

Top - OOHC IHC chart

First, the big picture: Manatee County has definitely hit historically high out-of-home-care numbers (in blue above). Its in-home care numbers (in green above) are high but not extreme. Manatee County may already be past its peak, as there have been multiple months of steady or decreasing numbers. It could rebound again, but a closer look at the fundamentals below suggest that this is not likely.

Investigations are a little up, verifications are fairly steady, and removals are way up. 

Manatee - Inv, Ver, Rmvl 2Looking at the green line in this chart, it appears that the upswing in removals started sometime around September 2013, which has the lowest removal count on record (only 4) in this area. The sharp upturn the next month suggests a clear policy change occured. The peak appears to have occurred in October 2015, when 74 children were removed.

Notably, the number of screened-in investigations are up by about 33% from 301 in September 2013 to 366 in September 2015. Verifications, however, are trending very slightly downward from 19.93% in September 2013 to 17.76% in September 2015. This rise in screened-in investigations is seen across the state and could be a mix of policy decisions by the Statewide Abuse Hotline or a reflection of population growth. What is clear from these numbers of that the spike in removals is not a result of a drastic spike in the number of investigations. It’s instead likely a change in either the types of cases that are called in or a change in the State’s response to how risk is assessed. The sharp increase suggests a policy change.

Manatee - Rmvl v. Discharge

Changes in OOHC is the simple difference of removals and discharges each month. Discharges and removals are both highly seasonal, with removals spiking at the ends of the school vacation months and discharges spiking in Novembers (adoption days) and June (end of a fiscal year). In the chart to the right, you can see Manatee County’s removals versus discharges, and the recent expansion is clearly a result in heightened removals, not a reduction in discharges.

Substance abuse allegations are down. Failure to protect allegations are up.

Manatee - Inv, Ver, Rmvl - Substance Abuse (3-month average)

The explanation offered in the media by child welfare professionals is that the number of removals is a reflection of an on-going heroin and opiate problem in Manatee County. This would suggest an increase in substance abuse cases. DCF trend reports show that “Substance Misuse” as an allegation is actually on the decline through this period. The 3-month average number of allegations of substance misuse have gone up from 170.5 in September 2013 to 200.8  in July 2014, and are now at 143.5. This is not the surge I was expecting and is consistent with a statewide decrease in the number of cases marked as “substance misuse.” The verification rate for these cases, however, has gone up — from 10.91% in December 2013 to 23.33% in December 2015. Either cases are becoming more severe, or DCF is categorizing and assessing risk differently in these cases. The abrupt increase, again, suggests a policy change.

Manatee - Inv, Ver, Rmvl - Failure to Protect (3-month average)In comparison, “Failure to Protect” allegations appear to better match the removal curve, and are closed out as “verified” at much higher percentages. This could be a reflection of DCF’s policies on categorizing alleged maltreatment. “Failure to protect” is not a useful category if it does not include failure to protect from what. 


Relatives to the rescue.

Manatee - Relatives # Graph

Since September 2006, relatives have been the predominate placement resource for kids in Manatee County. This is consistent with patterns across the state in areas facing similar expansions. Smaller expansions in Manatee County’s OOHC population from 2009 to 2013 were largely absorbed by relatives as well. Beginning in September 2013, however, all placement types began to expand, with relative placements expanding the most, and non-relatives and facility placements growing at slower rates. Family foster homes expanded until around August 2015, when they appear to have largely maxed out available placements at approximately 170 children; while all other placement types have continued to grow and show no current signs of reduction.

Relative placements may have peaked this summer and may be on the decline as cases close out and the removal rates come down. Family foster placements also have been on the decline as the numbers begin to drop. Notably, there is no similar drop in non-relative or facility foster numbers. This suggests that children in those placements experience different permanency paths from children in the homes of relatives or foster families.

Manatee - Relatives % Map The expansion clearly required a lot of reliance on relatives, but Manatee County and its CBC are not the state’s most heavily dependent on relative placements. In July 2016, Sarasota YMCA’s OOHC population was 42% relative caregivers.  The areas marked red in the map to the right were all well over 50% relative placements as of July 2016.  The CBCs with the lowest reliance on relatives have numbers below 40%, shown in deep green.


Discharges are lagging, but should be picking up soon.

Manatee - Discharge Graph

Manatee - Discharges % of OOHC

As would be expected, the number of discharges has been rising with the increase in OOHC, but discharges as a percentage of OOHC has been on the decline. This indicates that the increase in OOHC has resulted in a slow-down of the normal permanency path of cases, perhaps due to lack of resources, lack of available pre-adoptive and guardianship placements, or just lack of room on the court docket to handle cases effectively. Expansions cause slowdowns across the board.

Seen below, reunification has overwhelmingly become the predominate discharge type, recently hitting 77% of all discharges. Statewide, reunifications tend to be approximately 50% of all discharges. Guardianships and aging out have remained constant, while adoptions have risen very slightly. These numbers go against statewide trends, where reunifications have been steady and guardianships significantly down in recent years. The large number of reunifications raises the question of whether these children could have been served in their homes as opposed to removed. For the children who are found to have been appropriately removed, credit is due for high reunification rates.

Manatee - Discharge Types

Disproportionality issues galore.

Manatee - Race Count

Drastic expansions are interesting opportunities to study disproportionality effects. As the graph to the left shows, the expansion saw a significant increase in the number of white children (orange line) in OOHC. Initially there was a slight increase in black children (blue line), but that appears to have reduced and then stabilized. The numbers of “other race”children (green line) appears to have remained steady to slightly rising.

Manatee - Race % of OOHCViewed as a percentage of OOHC, the initial expansion raised the relative population of black children, but that number quickly returned back to lower levels as the number of white children continued to increase through 2015. The current expected OOHC composition in Manatee County is consistent with its historical values: 72% white, 20% black, and 7% other race. Statewide, the composition is approximately 60% white, 30% black, and 8% other, and growing whiter.

Manatee - Age PercentInterestingly the expansion seems to have affected children ages 10-14 (yellow line) the most. Before the expansion, this population regularly comprised about 25% of the OOHC population, but is now projected to be approximately 28%. After an initial spike in children ages 0-4 (blue line) beginning in November 2013, the next spike is found in ages 10-14 (yellow line) beginning in March 2014. Interestingly, ages 5-9 (light blue line) have seen steady decrease over the years and now make up approximately only 8% of the OOHC population.

Manatee - 12+ count

Finally, the number of children in OOHC for 12 or more months shows significant age effects. The 10-14 and 15-17 populations who have been in care longer than 12 months are expected to increase drastically over the next 16 months, while the numbers of children ages 0-4 and 5-9 are expected to remain fairly constant. These trends are reflective of the fact that older children face significant barriers to permanency once removed from their homes. The effects of this expansion will be felt for years to come as children in these cohorts eventually age out.

Is this just a Manatee County thing?

Curiously, this same expansion pattern is found in other counties around the state, but by no means in all of them. The following circuits and counties saw spikes; the dates in parentheses are eyeballed estimates of when the spikes began:

  • Twentieth Circuit – Charlotte (August 2014)
  • Seventh Circuit – Flagler (September 2014), Putnam (January 2014), St. John’s (July 2014), Volusia (July 2014)
  • Third Circuit – Columbia (September 2014), Dixie (September 2014)
  • Fifth Circuit – Hernando (February 2015), Marion (February 2015), Sumter (March 2015)
  • Eighteenth Circuit (September 2014) – Brevard (September 2014)

As an example, here is the Putnam County OOHC/IHC chart:

Putnam - Overview

The Putnam County spike is by far the most pronounced. Putnam County’s OOHC population went from 62 to 248 children in just two years. Its IHC population, however, did not rise by equal amounts. Putnam went from 27 children placed with relatives to 161 during this time. Putnam also experienced similar demographic waves: first a surge of black children, then an uptick of white children — first a surge of infants, then 10-14 year olds. Putnam County has dealt with discharges differently from Manatee, relying more on adoptions and permanent guardianships, but in many months the county has few if any discharges at all. Based on my google news searches, though, Putnam did not experience any similar drug problems. This spike is something else.

Is this a drug epidemic or a policy change? (Yes)

What happened in Florida Child Welfare policy in September 2014 that so many counties experienced extreme spikes in their OOHC populations all at once? SB 1666 happened, a new Secretary had been recently appointed, and the debate about how to handle abuse investigations continued. SB 1666 formalized and, in some areas, greatly reduced the Department’s ability to rely on safety plans in lieu of formal court intervention. The expansion in removals into relative placements in lockstep with the change in law suggests that these are cases that would have been resolved with a safety plan — “grandmother agrees to supervise contact between mother and child” instead of court involvement: “grandmother is ordered to supervise contact…”.  Manatee County may have had the unfortunate misfortune to experience a heroin epidemic at the same time as their discretion to work with families informally was reduced. This is what the pendulum of child welfare looks like.

This look at the numbers does not solve these counties’ placement problem, but it does suggest one important question: do all of those children really need to be removed and court involved?


Florida Child Welfare Stats for July 2016: OOHC=23,054, IHC=12,262

At the request of a distinguished commenter, I will try to help readers make sense of the statistics found in the Child Welfare Data Dashboard.  To that end, I will try posting monthly updates — corresponding with DCF’s data updates — with an eye toward big picture trends and projections of things to come. The projections are crude, based on the trends seen variable by variable. We haven’t tried to model the system or build projections based on outside factors. But maybe in the future we will. 

The July 2016 numbers are pretty steady from June. The summer months traditionally have fewer investigations — and this month was no exception. We should expect seasonal investigation increases of up to 20% in some areas once school begins.

Statewide abuse allegations continued to rise to 18,266 in May 2016, up 7.6% from 16,968 in May of the previous year. Statewide verification rates in July were down to 13.3% of all investigations compared to 14.4% in May the previous year. On the other hand, Statewide removal rates continued to rise slightly at 1,275, up from 1,230 in July of the previous year.

Removals were highest in Miami-Dade (125 children) and Hillsborough (123 children). Removals per 10,000 were highest in the relatively small county of Desoto (19.32 per 10,000). By CBC, removals were highest for Our Kids, the Eckerds, and Kids Central. Per 10,000 by CBC, removals were highest in the Northwest, Northeast, and Sarasota area. Family Support Services had the lowest removals at 0.972 per 10,000.

Relative caregivers continued to dominate the out-of-home care system at 10,217 or  44.32% of all children placed out of their homes. Family foster homes came in second at  7,217 or 31.30%. We are in the middle of an interesting transition for third place: nonrelative placements overtook facility foster homes in September 2015 and the trend appears to be stable. In July 2016, non-relatives were 11.08% and facilities were 10.40% of all out-of-home care placements. The trend is not seen in the Southeast Region, which historically relies heavily on facility foster placements.

There were 1,127 children discharged in July 2016, up 8.1% from 1,042 in July of the previous year. Over half, 53.8%, of discharges were reunifications, while 21.7% were guardianships, and 14.6% were adoptions. Discharges due to youth aging out of care accounted for 9.76% of total discharges.


These projections use very simple linear models built into Tableau to look at future trends along each variable independently. These projections are based on current trends and do not take into account any outside factors: agency policy changes and responses to public events can completely negate or reverse the course of trends, so caution is warranted. Currently the projections suggest the following regional patterns.

Prediction Header - Statewide

Statewide: expect modest increases in the OOHC population as summer ends, and a decrease in IHC driven largely by a slight reduction in the number of discharges from OOHC across the state. We may be seeing the end of the expansion that began in June 2013 with the exit of Secretary Wilkins — about half of the Regions have already begun their contractions. Expect a continued decrease in the number of children placed with relatives while the number of children in family foster homes and non-relative placements continues to increase.

Prediction Header - NW

Northwest Region: expect the number of removals to continue to significantly outpace the number of discharges, resulting in increased OOHC population. Expect the number of IHC cases to stabilize as the region reaches the roughly 2:1 ratio found around the rest of the state. The number of family and facility foster placements has shown no sign of increasing, so expect even higher reliance on relative placements and lack of placement “growing pains” for youth who do not have available kin. The spike in both OOHC and IHC during 2015 appear unique to this region and deserve more exploration. Beware of “pendulum” swings as stakeholders become aware of steep shifts and attempt to over-correct.

Prediction Header - NE

Northeast Region: expect relatively steady OOHC and IHC populations with a reduced reliance on family foster homes and slight increase in non-relative placements. We may be seeing the end of the current expansion. If discharge rates continue to remain low, expect a possible increase in the OOHC population not shown in the graph above.

Prediction Header - Cent

Central Region: expect an increase in OOHC and IHC populations, driven largely by lower discharge rates and historically irregular case closure rates. The current expansion appears to be continuing. Consider working with courts to review cases that are ready for termination of supervision more consistently. Expect a reduction in relative caregiver placements as cases from the 2014 spike continue to close out. Also expect an increased reliance on non-relative placements as family foster placements do not appear to be rising.

Prediction Header - SunC

Suncoast Region: expect a continued increase in OOHC and IHC populations, driven largely by a decrease in discharges and intermittent spikes in discharges. The current expansion appears to be continuing. Expect a continued reduction in relative placements as children placed with relatives enter permanent guardianships. Family foster home capacity has remained fairly constant over the past 9 years, which does not reflect the reality of a growing OOHC population. Expect “growing pains” if more foster homes are not recruited or discharges are not spread out more evenly.

Prediction Header - SE

Southeast Region: expect a large decrease in OOHC population as cases from the current expansion continue to clear out. Expect a decrease in relative caregiver placements and a relatively steady number of other placements. Beware of “pendulum” swings as stakeholders become aware of steep shifts and attempt to over-correct.

Prediction Header - S

Southern Region: expect a slight decrease in OOHC and an increasingly steep reduction in IHC as discharges and closures outpace removals. We may be nearing the end of the current retraction. Permanent guardianships and adoptions have been increasing over time and show no signs of slowing, while reunifications have been steady or slightly decreasing. As cases from the previous expansion clear out, expect an increasing reliance on family foster homes as opposed to relatives.


The numbers in these graphs are from the DCF Child Welfare Trend Reports. We have made every effort to display the data as originally published by the Department, but we encourage readers to verify any data in the original reports before using it for anything important. The predictions are very limited and based solely on information found in the trend reports. No one should take any actions on these projections alone. 

Help test our Florida Child Welfare System Dashboard

Good morning readers,

Our office receives a lot of calls from folks with questions about DCF statistics. I usually point them to the Trend Reports, kept by the Center for Child Welfare. The Trend Reports are amazing repositories of big-picture and local-level details. The people who maintain them do a fantastic job. The Trend Reports’ only limitation is that they are designed to be general and can take time to navigate and configure to reach the specific answers you’re looking for.

I’ve spent the past few weeks trying to re-visualize the Trends Report data in a way that answers the most common questions people have about the child welfare system: how many kids are in it?, are removals going up?, is the system growing or shrinking?, is there a foster home crisis?, how many kids are reunified?, and does the child welfare system target children of color?

I am happy (and somewhat nervous) to present the first draft of the results: the Child Welfare System Dashboard – BETA. We are working on finding the Dashboard a permanent home, but for now it is available on tableau.com. I ask you to please support the project by helping test it and giving your feedback (at rlatham@law.miami.edu) if you find errors, have suggestions, or want to see specific questions answered based on the data.

Thank you!

dashboard screenshot

Fifth DCA essentially declines to follow Florida Supreme Court on ineffective assistance of counsel

The opinion boils down to this:

Florida Supreme Court: Trial judges must orally advise a parent of their right to file a motion alleging ineffective assistance of counsel after a TPR trial.

Mother: The trial judge didn’t advise me, and my trial counsel (who I tried to fire halfway through the trial) didn’t say anything either. Not even my appellate counsel filed anything until the initial brief.

DCF: Yeah, she’s right.

Fifth DCA: ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

The Fifth District doesn’t offer any legal reason that it can decline to follow the Florida Supreme Court’s clear procedure. The Fifth District points to the length of time the child has been in care as a determinative factor, but it’s unclear what that has to do with ineffective assistance of counsel at a TPR trial. A parent’s right to fair treatment does not depend on when the Department decides to file a TPR petition.

The Fifth also blames the mother’s appellate counsel for not filing a motion to relinquish jurisdiction prior to the briefing. The Fifth District did not need to wait for a motion. The notice of appeal was filed on December 21, 2015. Assuming that the briefing schedule was exactly on time, the initial brief was due within 70 days, or February 29, 2016. The Fifth would then be on notice that the mother was raising an argument based on ineffectiveness and could have relinquished jurisdiction on its own. The answer brief would be due in 20 days later, and a reply brief would be due 20 days after that, Monday April 11, 2016 — also known as 25 days after the Fifth’s opinion was rendered. Under the Florida Supreme Court’s interim rules, the trial court has 25 days to render an opinion on an ineffective assistance claim.

The Fifth therefore could have relinquished jurisdiction for the trial court to hold the hearing and finished this appeal exactly within the time-frames that the appellate rules contemplated an appeal taking. Probably sooner, because at that point the opinion would be a PCA — no written opinion necessary. Given that the mother was 18 years old and the child less than 2, waiting two extra weeks does not seem particularly egregious to make sure nothing went wrong. More time than that is routinely lost in putting together transcripts or giving an attorney an extension because they are out for vacation.

It probably wasn’t clear how an appellate attorney should handle the situation of a parent who didn’t get proper notice in the trial court. The next parent’s attorney who fails to file a motion to relinquish, however, should face ineffective assistance charges or worse. The same goes to the DCF attorneys who watched it happened without filing their own motion, and the judges who stood by and ran out the clock.

Miami’s foster children are going missing at historically high rates. Why?

There has been a lot of discussion in Miami lately about the appropriate response to kids who run away from foster care. The perception here is that foster kids are running away more often. I wondered if that was true, so I checked the Department of Children and Families’ Child Welfare Services Trend Report (January 2016). A few caveats about the numbers, which I present below. The CWST Report counts a child as “runaway/absconded/abducted” if they’ve left the placement without permission and their whereabouts are not known on the last day of the month. This seems to under-count by excluding kids who run away for short periods of time, unless those periods cross a month boundary. The report does not break down missing youth by age, sex, or other demographics (but DCF’s Missing Child List suggests that most missing foster children are teenagers). Nor does it tell us why a youth left, where they went, or how long they were missing.

The question being raised in Miami is whether children in the foster care system can be judicially ordered to not run away, and then held in secure detention for contempt if they don’t comply. Florida statutes and the Florida Supreme Court are clear that dependent youth cannot be placed in secure detention for contempt; moreover, running away, in and of itself, is not a criminal offense in Florida. Police are required to return children to their custodians in their role as so-called “community caretaker.” If the child is a habitual run-away, then the family can be referred for services. This program does not apply to children in foster care, who already receive services.

I checked DCF’s procedures on run-away youth. The Department’s operating procedures require the case manager to request court and law enforcement help to return the child if located. I was happy to see that the operating procedures also state that “When the child returns, the child must hear and see statements of concern regarding the child’s safety and well-being from the adults who have significant relations with the child.” I have seen adults respond with anger and frustration when youth run away, or adults who seek to punish the youth for running instead of exploring the cause and purpose.

I certainly understand the frustrations motivating people seeking to reduce the number of missing youth. The numbers discussed below substantiate the perception that kids are running away at high rates: Miami has a rate of missing kids that is four times the lowest Florida regions. We should be asking why that is. Running away is not inherently a form of mis-behavior. Running away can be a developmentally appropriate behavioral response to stressors and problems that need to be addressed in the home or the child’s life. It can also be a safer alternative to an abusive or neglectful home, especially if adults charged with protecting the youth are not responsive to complaints. Commanding or ordering a child to not run away without addressing those underlying problems is equivalent to ordering a child not to cry.

Based on my own experience, threatening foster youth with incarceration also has the counterproductive effect of undermining the child’s trust and belief in the fairness of the system, thus making the desire to run away even stronger. It also has the negative consequence of normalizing the idea of incarceration, i.e., “the judge is going to throw me in jail anyway, so I may as well do X.” Foster youth are already at significantly higher risk of juvenile justice involvement. Secure detention would only exacerbate that risk.

The numbers below suggest that the current missing child rate is a symptom of something going very wrong. We need more information about why these kids are running and how to address their needs. Now for the numbers.

Missing children over time

Since 2003, there has been a very large variation in the number of children listed as missing in the CWST Report. The peak occurred in June 2007 with 470 missing children statewide. I checked that against the number of kids in out-of-home care that month: 17.5 kids per 1000 kids in out-of-home care were missing.

Statewide over time.png

This peak appears to have gone largely unnoticed and un-commented upon. A search of Google News for that time period turned up nothing. A chart in a DCF training bulletin from January 2007 listed the missing child rate at 1.67% with no mention that this was nearly double the rate from just four years prior.

In the next chart, you can see that not all DCF regions had equal numbers of missing kids. The Suncoast Region has the highest number of missing children in 2007, but all regions were slightly up that year.

Regions over time

When these numbers are viewed as a percentage of kids in out-of-home care, though, a different picture emerges. Remember from previous posts that the Southern Region (Miami & the Keys) has historically had relatively fewer kids in out-of-home care than other regions. In January 2016, for example, the Southern Region had 1,999 children in out-of-home care, compared to 6,234 children in the Suncoast Region (Tampa, St. Petersburg).

Regions per 1000.png

Viewing the rate of missing kids as a percentage of kids in out-of-home care, the Southern Region has four times the rate of missing children as the region with the lowest rate. The historical statewide high was 17.5 missing children per 1,000 in 2007. The Southern Region has hit 30 missing kids per 1,000 twice. Moreover the Southern Regions’ rate appears to have grown since 2014 and is currently hovering around 20 per 1,000. Other regions are currently averaging 5-7 per 1,000.

What is going on? With this data I can offer only theories. One theory could be that the expansion of out-of-home care numbers has led to an increase in the number of missing kids. The graphs below show the number of missing kids versus the out-of-home care population. You can see that the rise in missing kids is partially a product of the rise in out-of-home care population. As the population goes us, the number of missing kids does go up. But the differences in the slopes and differences among regions suggest that more is going on in the South than just additional kids coming into care.

Another theory could be that the missing child rate is an indicator of system instability. Miami has experienced a lot of changes over the last 4 years, including the closing of several case management agencies and a restructuring of its placement system. Even among agencies that have remained open, the case manager turnover rate has been high. That upheaval has not been easy on anyone, most especially the kids. It could be that the missing kids aren’t running away from “care” as much as running to find care somewhere they believe will be more stable. Without more information from the youth themselves, it is very difficult to say.

Seasonal Factors

Foster kids don’t go missing at equal rates throughout the year. Statewide missing child numbers tend to seasonally increase 7.5% in June and then decrease 6.6% in September. I suspect these are summer runners who return to school, and thus to their placements, in the Fall. There’s a similar spike of 4.1% in December, with a dip of 2.8% in January when school is back in session. These are likely unsanctioned holiday visits.

Breaking up the numbers shows some regional differences. Every region experiences the back-to-school dip in recovered kids. Interestingly, however, the Northwest Region (Pensacola, Tallahassee) doesn’t have a pronounced summer spike. It does, however, have a very large increase — 20.5% — during the winter holidays. The Central Region, on the other hand, has a significantly smaller increase in missing kids over the winter holidays. This might suggest the need to look at how the Home for the Holidays program is being implemented in these regions to see if that is affecting the number of missing kids.

The numbers in context

If you know your region is experiencing a missing child crisis, what do you do? A 2011 study from the Urban Institute and Chapin Hall (which I will paraphrase liberally for the next three paragraphs) found that the reason kids run away from foster care falls into two basic categories: (1) wanting to be with family and friends and (2) disliking their placement. After a runaway episode, most youth return to care voluntarily. The reasons for returning included wanting to be back at their home, wanting to go to school, and avoiding getting themselves or others in trouble.

The majority of youth in the Chapin Hall study ran away to a friend’s home, including boyfriends and girlfriends; and about one-third spent their first night at a relative’s home. Only three youth reported spending any time of their most recent episode in an outside location such as a park or an abandoned building. As a result, these youth do not seek services while they are on the run from a placement.

Consequently, foster youth are often less sophisticated in terms of street knowledge. Youth who run away from foster care have more knowledge of services available than high school aged youth in general, but youth with foster care experience generally had similar or less knowledge than other runaway youth. In particular, youth in the study’s foster care sample had less knowledge of services that typically comes from street experience including free meals, drop-in centers, street outreach and free showers. The biggest barrier to foster youth seeking services while on the run is that they believe they will be turned in, either directly to the Department or to the police.

The National Runaway Safeline’s has a forum dedicated to youth who run away from foster care. Posts from youth in the forum mirror many of these sentiments.

The Chapin Hall study’s review of literature also found the following:

  • Females are more likely to run away than males.
  • Runaway behavior is not linked to a particular race or ethnicity.
  • Runaways tend to have more school problems, higher rates of suicidal ideation, more reported behavioral problems; and more alcohol, substance abuse, and mental health disorders.
  • Foster youth are more likely to run away the first time if they entered care due to lack of supervision and less likely if they entered due to sexual abuse or physical abuse.
  • The more placements they have, the more likely youth are to run.
  • Youth in group homes or residential facilities more likely to run away than youth in foster homes; youth placed with relatives are least likely to run away.
  • Length of time in care does not necessarily predict runaway; in fact, the older the youth is when entering care, the more likely they are to run away.

There’s no reason to believe that securely detaining kids for running away is a productive intervention strategy, and it may have unforeseen consequences if children remain in unsafe placements or remain on run in an unsafe situation out of fear of incarceration. There are evidence-based intervention models that could be implemented as alternatives to secure detention: researchers at The University of South Florida published a 2008 study on approaches to intervening in runaway behavior. The study found that a functional behavioral approach was significantly more successful than “services as usual.” The Child Welfare Information Gateway has a collection of resources on running away.

Whatever is going on in the Southern Region does not appear universal or unavoidable. We need to figure out why these kids are leaving at such high rates — and we must welcome them back warmly and with concern, so that they never have to think twice about reaching out for help.