Florida Department of Children and Families Puts Foster Youth at Risk of Physical, Psychological Harm in Miami-Dade/Monroe, New Suit Charges

Drastic Shortage of Foster Homes and Lack of Mental Health Services Re-Victimizing Children; Kids Frequently Moved 20 or More Times, Infants and Toddlers Warehoused in Group Care

Contact: Wende Gozan Brown, 646-216-3329, wbrown@childrensrights.org; Mary Kate Martin, 312-861-8254, MaryKate.Martin@bakermckenzie.com

(Tallahassee, FL) – An extreme shortage of foster homes in Miami-Dade and Monroe Counties leaves children adrift and at risk of harm as they bounce between numerous families, group homes and institutions while their mental health needs go unmet, according to a federal class-action lawsuit filed today.

International law firm Baker McKenzie and national non-profit organization Children’s Rights filed H.G. v. Carroll on behalf of the approximately 2,000 children in foster care, as well as all those who will enter foster care, whose cases originate in the “Southern Region.” The lawsuit names as a defendant Florida Department of Children and Families (DCF) Secretary Mike Carroll, and charges that the state has long failed to address this known shortage of foster homes—with dangerous results.

According to the complaint, of the children who spent time in Miami-Dade and Monroe County foster care between January 2016 and June 2017, over 400 kids had 10 or more total placements; at least 185 kids lived in 20 or more places; more than 50 children lived at least 50 places; and 27 children were bounced around between 80 and 140 placements during their total time in state care. Extreme instability causes emotional and psychological harm and affects brain development.

The complaint also asserts that since 2013, at any given time there have been at least 30 children under the age of 6 who are housed in emergency shelters and group homes, receiving care from shift workers—an inappropriate practice that runs counter to widely accepted standards. Some older children live in locked psychiatric facilities without clinical need because DCF has nowhere else to put them.  Others are housed “night to night”—kept in an agency office until late, then left to sleep wherever a bed exists, only to repeat the same cycle the next day.

The complaint highlights the disturbing journeys of several named plaintiffs, including:

  • L.T., a 16-year-old girl who has been rotated through at least 17 placements and 25 placement moves during her more than four years in DCF custody—with some of these placements lasting no more than several hours. Her education was often an afterthought. She has frequently been housed “night to night,” often with her personal belongings, including those for basic hygiene, kept in her caseworker’s car. “Why am I good enough for one week, but not good enough to stay?” she once asked.  DCF has repeatedly placed her in foster homes ill-equipped to meet her needs, particularly given a history of sexual exploitation.
  • F.C., a 13-year-old boy who lived in 18 DCF-licensed placements during his first year in foster care. Even though F.C. has documented mental health needs, his treatment was extremely inconsistent, in part because near-constant placement moves meant that he frequently missed his therapy appointments. F.C.’s mental health began to decline, and eight months into his time in state care, he expressed suicidal thoughts and was hospitalized.
  • S.A., a 16-year-old girl who spent months waiting for a therapeutic placement while her mental health deteriorated and she was cutting herself. She was placed in a lock-down psychiatric facility, where she was forced to stay three months longer than necessary because DCF could not find her a suitable therapeutic home. Finally, DCF offered a foster mother an extra $50 per month to care for S.A., even though she was not trained to handle her needs. S.A. began cutting herself again and ran away from the home. While on the run, S.A. fell victim to sex trafficking.
  • C.P., a 4-year-old boy with Down’s syndrome, who was separated from his siblings and housed in a group facility for nearly a year starting at 2 years old; and siblings M.G. and H.G., an 8-month-old boy and 2-year-old girl, who have been in a group facility for the past three months because DCF has nowhere else to house them.

“After being bounced around 10, 20 or more times, these kids desperately want and deserve stable, loving homes and support to deal with the trauma they have experienced,” said Angela Vigil, counsel at Baker McKenzie.  “This case seeks to hold the Florida Department of Children and Families accountable for re-victimizing the very kids they’re supposed to protect.”

“There is long-term harm when kids are treated like ping pong balls, or when infants are warehoused in shelters and group homes,” added Ira Lustbader, litigation director for Children’s Rights. “Extreme instability and unnecessary institutionalization can physically damage children’s developing brains, impacting their learning and behavior. You might as well say, ‘We’re not giving you a fair shot in life’.”

Plaintiffs in the lawsuit seek system-wide changes to prevent ongoing harms, and risks of harm, to themselves and other foster children in DCF custody.

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Baker McKenzie: Baker McKenzie helps clients overcome the challenges of competing in the global economy. We solve complex legal problems across borders and practice areas. Our unique culture, developed over 65 years, enables our 13,000 people to understand local markets and navigate multiple jurisdictions, working together as trusted colleagues and friends to instill confidence in our clients. Our pro bono mission is to deliver first-class legal services to the underserved and disadvantaged by fostering an environment that encourages and promotes service and contributes to the well-being of the communities in which we practice and live.

Children’s Rights: Every day, children are harmed in America’s broken child welfare, juvenile justice, education, and healthcare systems. Through relentless strategic advocacy and legal action, we hold governments accountable for keeping kids safe and healthy. Children’s Rights, a national non-profit organization, has made a lasting impact for hundreds of thousands of vulnerable children. For more information, please visit www.childrensrights.org.

 

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