THE ISSUE: Child’s death exposes a big problem in foster-care reform

Sun Sentinel
Sun Sentinel Editorial Board

It wasn’t that long ago when the Florida Department of Children & Families was seen as a hapless bureaucracy. Whether it was their seeking to incarcerate an 8 year-old to ensure he received proper care, or simply losing youngsters supposedly under its care, it didn’t take much for DCF to make a mockery of its role in child welfare.

The good news is that DCF is no longer that troubled agency. Unfortunately, many of those problems that once bedeviled DCF now belong to those local nonprofits and government agencies that are under contract with the state to provide foster care and other child protective services. Thank community-based care for that.

Community-based care came about during the first term of then-Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, who combined his zeal for public private partnerships with the need to improve the state’s largest government agency to create a largely successful policy initiative. Today, more people are involved in the critically important care of Florida’s children.

Yet, cases like the death of 7-year-old Gabriel Myers continue to expose holes in what remains a major governmental reform. Myers’ body was found hanged in his Margate home. The youth’s suicide is problematic enough, but it is only compounded by the prescription of powerful anti-psychotic drugs that brought periods of calm into the child’s life but may have produced unwanted side effects. One of Myers’ drugs, Symbyax, contains a “black box” warning that it causes suicidal thoughts and behavior in children.

Worse, the medication was prescribed without a court order or parental consent, a clear violation of state law, and Myers wasn’t alone. According to a recent study released by DCF, the social agencies that are under contract with DCF aren’t complying with benchmarks governing the use of psychotropic medication among foster children. So what began as a horrific case in Broward County remains a statewide problem.

The task of caring for foster children remains difficult. The onus to make sure that the reform called “community-based care” succeeds now rests with groups like Broward County’s Child Net and Child and Family Connections in Palm Beach County, which must shoulder a greater responsibility of ensuring that wards of the state under their jurisdiction receive proper care.

BOTTOM LINE: The onus now is on local groups running foster care.

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