Foster care task force created after 7-year-old Margate boy killed himself wants changes

Date: 2009-08-21

A work group assigned to study the death of a Broward youngster released its final report. But advocates ask: Who will pay for the reforms the group recommends?

By CAROL MARBIN MILLER

More lawyers and court-appointed guardians, more therapy, second medical opinions, and the security of long-term foster homes where caregivers treat kids "as we would our own children."

Those are some of the wish-list items of a state task force that studied the April death of a Broward foster child and recommended a host of reforms for Florida's chronically troubled foster-care system.

But will they work? Not, children's advocates say, if state child welfare administrators can't fix the one thing that has hampered the work of perhaps a dozen previous child-welfare task forces: a perennial lack of money.

Thursday, the Gabriel Myers Work Group released its final, 26-page report on failures of the state's child-welfare system that were linked to the April 16 death of 7-year-old Gabriel, who hanged himself with a detachable shower cord in the bathroom of his Margate foster home.

Some of the recommendations require little more than tweaking internal rules and policies or having better compliance with existing rules -- such as following state laws requiring informed consent from a parent or judge before giving a child powerful psychiatric drugs.

But a host of other recommendations will require millions of taxpayer dollars -- at a time of shrinking state revenues and contracting budgets.

"This won't be the first report or plan -- and certainly won't be the last -- that runs into the reality of how much and where's the money," said Jack Levine, a longtime children's and family advocate in Tallahassee.

Added state Sen. Nan Rich, a Weston Democrat who is vice chair of the Senate's Children & Families Committee: "You can't fix this problem without more financial resources. ... We still have a long way to go to protect children."

Department of Children & Families Secretary George Sheldon commended the work group, saying members "held nothing back" in issuing a blueprint for reform.

"Now," he said, "it's incumbent on me to carry the torch both from an internal standpoint, in terms of changing our culture, and from the external standpoint of getting the resources necessary to do it."

`LEGACY'

Gabriel's death -- and the attention it received nationwide -- will help provide lawmakers with the sense of urgency needed to resolve issues that long have plagued the agency, Sheldon said. "If any good comes out of this -- if there will be a legacy for Gabriel -- it will be a legislative initiative, both substantively and dollar-wise," he said.

Gabriel, who was born in Ohio, was taken in by the Department of Children & Families on June 29, 2008, after his mother was found slumped in her car surrounded by narcotics. In the next 10 months, Gabriel was moved four times between a relative and foster parents.

In the weeks following the youngster's death, authorities acknowledged Gabriel had been given several mental-health drugs -- some linked to dangerous side effects in children -- without the required parental or judicial consent. Though Gabriel had been seen by therapists and a psychiatrist, DCF admitted the agency missed key "red flags" that his condition was becoming critical.

KEY FINDINGS

Sheldon appointed five members to the work group, which held six meetings throughout the state in an effort to identify measures that could improve the care of children like Gabriel.

Among the work group's key findings:

  • DCF expects the work load to more than double -- from 761 calls in budget year 2008 to 2,000 in 2009 -- for a University of Florida program, called the Behavioral Health Network, that provides information on psychiatric drugs to parents, foster parents, court-appointed guardians and caseworkers for foster kids.
  • Children with mental illnesses fare better when they receive psychological or behavioral therapy in addition to medication. Therapeutic services for foster children have remained stagnant in recent years along with state dollars for mental-health care.
  • Court-appointed guardians ad litem should be reporting children's wishes regarding medication to judges who oversee their time in foster care, the report said. But only about 6 out of 10 foster kids have access to a guardian, advocates say.

ATTORNEY FEES

"Any child who objects to the administration of medication, at any point in time, should be appointed counsel to directly represent his or her position," the group wrote. Some advocates, the report added, insist that every child in foster care -- especially those taking psychotropic drugs -- should have a lawyer.

The state now pays $1,000 in attorney's fees for lawyers who represent parents accused of abusing or neglecting their children, said Judi Spann, DCF's deputy chief of staff. The state pays another $1,000 in cases where parents might lose their rights permanently, and $1,000 more if there is an appeal.

`PRIORITIES'

And Florida law already requires that children in state care be appointed a guardian ad litem, said state Sen. Rich. Nevertheless, cuts in spending in the current state budget eliminated court-appointed guardians for 2,000 Florida children.

"It's about priorities," said Rich, a longtime children's advocate. "There could have been funding for the Guardian ad Litem Program, but the Legislature did not determine it to be one of its top priorities. I disagree with that."

`ACCOUNTABILITY'

Task force members acknowledged the difficulty in implementing the group's proposals, though Thursday's report suggests the greatest challenges lie in "accountability" and "responsibility" -- not funding.

The last sentence of the report says concerns over "management and funding for the recommendations emerging from these findings remain, and must be addressed by appropriate executive and legislative branch agencies."

FAMILIAR FINDINGS

Some of the work group's recommendations have been around the block a few times.

Last April, for example, a Florida Bar committee on the legal needs of children recommended both lay guardians and attorneys for foster kids at key moments in their care -- including when mental-health drugs are to be used. Legislation proposed by the Bar committee could cost as much as $15 million, said lawyer and children's advocate Howard Talenfeld, who chairs the committee.

And in 2003, a task force studying the disappearance of then-5-year-old Rilya Wilson, a Miami foster child, said the judge overseeing Rilya's case might have been alerted sooner that Rilya was missing if the child had been given a lay guardian.

A CHALLENGE

Sheldon acknowledged the concerns of some advocates that the Gabriel Myers report will end up on an agency bookshelf gathering dust along with prior studies.

"That's a legacy I want to leave behind," Sheldon said.

"I want to prove the cynics wrong."

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