The below editorial, published in the Tampa Bay Times on September 13th, was authored by Charlotte County Sheriff Bill Prummell in his capacity as Chairman of the Florida Sheriffs Youth Ranches Board of Directors. Sheriff Prummell touches on concerns shared by many Florida Sheriffs about stripping away funding from high quality residential group homes when a shortage of foster homes exists. He highlights the work and mission of the Florida Sheriffs Youth Ranches and urges members of Congress to support the State Flexibility for Family First Transitions Act.
For over 15 years now, we have witnessed the government try to reduce the use of residential group homes for foster children. Our state began its efforts years ago as a result of lawsuits taking place around the country trying to end the use of poorly run group homes. Many of these homes were large facilities, housing many children in the same building, using shift care staff and functioned like shelters rather than home like environments. These efforts of closing programs that served as warehouses for children were applauded by many, including residential programs that utilized family model homes. The thinking continues that children are better off in traditional foster homes – or even better if they are able to remain in their homes while their families receive support and treatment to help turn things around.
The federal Family First Prevention Services Act — passed as part of a budget bill in 2018 and set to take effect Oct. 1 — seeks to overhaul our country’s child welfare system by providing more funds for treatment and prevention services, with the goal of keeping families together and preventing children from entering the system.
As a Sheriff, I am worried about what will happen when this law fully takes effect next month without adequate funds in place. The state and its community partners have worked diligently to increase the number of available qualified foster homes. However, while active foster parent recruiting campaigns do work in adding new foster families, the loss of current foster homes remains extremely high. Florida already has a shortage of suitable foster homes for the placement of at risk children and to lose quality residential group homes as an option for children in the state’s care place will only create additional hardships for all of us involved in protecting our most vulnerable children.
I, along with many of my fellow Sheriffs, fear that more instances like those published in the Miami Herald’s 2014 heart-wrenching series Innocents Lost will occur. Striping away funding from high quality residential group homes when there are simply not enough foster homes is a deadly game of chance. There are hundreds of children without adequate placements around our state right now. Some feel Family First will relieve this problem by keeping families together. However, the effort of maintaining children in the home where a history of drug use and or abuse is prevalent is simply an unnecessary risk.
As Sheriff, my peers, and I have seen firsthand the tragic results as children were left in the homes of abusive parents or placed with relative caregivers who were also unsuitable to care for a child. What may feel good to many looking in from the outside, it is not so pleasant for those actually involved. This is especially true when a child dies or is found mistreated by those who should have kept them safe. We as Sheriffs recognize that high quality, family-style residential group homes are just as vital to the child welfare system as traditional foster homes, especially when large sibling groups are affected.
The Florida Sheriffs Association and Sheriffs’ Offices across the state have supported the work and mission of the Florida Sheriffs Youth Ranches, a family-style residential group home, for more than 60 years. We have experienced how the program and our model of care can change lives and prevent juvenile delinquency. Our Sheriffs Association founded the Youth Ranches in 1957, after seeing a need in Florida for a place that could help troubled children who needed a second chance. Since opening our first residential campus the Youth Ranches has provided safe and loving homes to thousands of Florida’s neediest children.
As the implementation of this poorly written legislation draws near, Florida needs more time to develop a plan to adjust to the Family First Prevention Services Act, and we encourage members of Congress to support the State Flexibility for Family First Transitions Act (S. 107), introduced by Sens. Marco Rubio (R-FL) and Diane Feinstein (D-CA) and the companion House bill H.R. 3116 was introduced by Rep. Bacon (NE), Katie Hill (CA). This bipartisan bill provides states with a two-year extension and allows them to figure out how to comply with Family First and how residential group homes fit into the picture before simply eliminating them as part of the continuum of care. We applaud Senator Rick Scott for signing on to S.107 and Florida Representatives Greg Steube, Kathy Castor, Gus Bilirakis, Neal Dunn, Matt Gaetz, Val Demings, Bill Posey, and Debbie Wasserman-Schultz for signing on to the House version of the bill H.R. 3116.
We ask our other members of Congress to endorse this necessary legislation, as support from the entire Florida delegation would send a powerful message that this bill is essential to our child welfare system. With more than 40% of Florida’s child welfare budget coming from federal funds, it is critical that our state is prepared to implement the changes required by Family First without endangering the lives of children.
Sheriff, Charlotte County, FL
Chair, Florida Sheriff’s Youth Ranches