I’ve added a new tab to the Child Welfare System Dashboard that shows the out-of-home care population annotated with historical events: governors’ tenures, legislative history, and Florida Supreme Court opinions. Each picture tells a different part of the story about what drives child welfare policy and the rise and fall of the OOHC population.

Leadership

The saying goes “personnel is policy.” The chart below shows historical trends in the statewide out-of-home care numbers as a factor of both who was secretary and who was governor. Be careful about the vertical axis — it starts at 14,000 to make room for the labels, so the proportions may be misleading. The current OOHC population is 19% lower than when Governor Crist took office and 30% higher than when Governor Scott took office.

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Legislation

The next chart shows major state legislative enactments. It’s a little hard to read because the major overhaul bills do lots of things all at once. That’s not exactly how you want to run an evidence-based system. (The chart below is just major legislation — the tableau.com version lets you view all legislation during the tenure of each secretary.)

The chart shows that Secretary Butterworth took over right after the passage of SB 1080, which greatly expanded both the permanency options and case planning procedures. OOHC plummeted during this time. Secretary Sheldon took over right after the passage of HB 7077, which restricted case plan duration to 9 months before triggering a TPR ground. The size of OOHC continued to decrease through this period. At the end of Secretary Sheldon’s tenure, the Legislature passed HB 5303, which changed the funding and risk pool models for CBCs.

With a new governor and a new secretary in 2011, the Legislature passed SB 2146 creating the Equity Allocation Model in statute, which based funding on proportions of children in the CBC’s area (30%), proportion of children in care (30%), proportion of hotline workload (30%), and proportion of reductions in the size of OOHC (10%). (This is a gross oversimplification.) By 2015, the formula had been tweaked multiple times to condition 80% of funding on the CBC’s size of OOHC, 15% on the hotline workload, and only 5% on the size of the child population. Between January and June 2015 when the bill that cemented OOHC as the primary driver of funding was being considered in the legislature, CBCs permitted their OOHC populations to grow by 2,000 children in what appears to be the largest and steepest consecutive increase in documented history. Aside from seasonal variations, OOHC rates have increased ever since.

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Adjudication

This last chart shows Florida Supreme Court opinions. You can see that in the early 2000’s, when the OOHC population was still high, the main issue was the level of due process afforded parents in dependency and TPR proceedings. (Very little.) Most opinions were answered with a legislative amendment. In 2004, the Court issued an opinion requiring a showing of substantial risk of harm to a child in order to terminate their parents’ rights. That was the Court’s last substantive child welfare opinion until 2015, when the Court held that parents have a constitutional right to effective assistance of counsel in TPR proceedings. The next year, the Court ruled that the existence of a bond between the parent and the child is not fatal to a TPR under Least Restrictive Means analysis.

It’s difficult to say that any particular Florida Supreme Court decision had a steering effect on child welfare policy. Instead, the opinions seem to have nudged the Legislature and Department to modify existing procedures to achieve their desired results.

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I suppose the take-away is that if you want to shift child welfare policy you should become the Governor or Secretary. If you can’t do that, you should at least become a legislator. If you’re not interested in all that work, filing a lawsuit here or there can’t hurt. I’m apparently in the wrong business.

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