What's Wrong With Florida's Child Welfare System? They Kept the Communities Out of Community Based Care.

 

by Alvin W. Wolfe, Ph.D., Chair, Florida Health and Human Services Board, Inc.

 

When the Department of Children and Families was created out of the remnants of the former Department of Health and Rehabilitative Services, the legislature removed all the official mechanisms by which local communities had been able to make their own needs and demands heard within the department. The Privatization Act of 1998 was supposed to make foster care more like a business. Sensing that that didn't sound right, in 2000 they changed the label to "community based care" but ironically removed from the picture the local district health and human services boards that had been the voices of local communities.

 

From 1992 until 2000, the year when Secretary Kearney got the Florida Legislature to abolish them, the local district health and human services boards were more than voices, they were almost managing partners, to use the phrase that was in the original language establishing them in the early 1990s. Broadminded and farsighted legislators like Tampa's Louis de la Parte had seen the need for local citizen input into planning and evaluating the wide range of services that were being offered by the then massive Department of Health and Rehabilitative Services.

 

In each of the fifteen local districts, county commissioners appointed members of the District Health and Human Services Board. The Health and Human Services Board in each district nominated District Administrators who were then appointed by the Secretary of the Department to manage and supervise the local services. They had allegiance to the local community, not just to the secretary in Tallahassee as is the case now.

 

In the eight years they were in existence the health and human services boards were trying to improve a very complex and seriously under-funded system of prevention and care for those who are often referred to as "our most vulnerable citizens," children at risk of abuse, neglect, and delinquency, and adults at risk of disabilities, substance abuse, mental and emotional illness, poor health and, of course, poverty.  

 

In a series of assaults that prevented the natural development of a good system that might have better protected thousands of children and adults, the Florida Legislature broke up the Department of Health and Rehabilitative Services, separated out juvenile services, then child support enforcement, then health services, then  children's medical services, and still under-funded what was left under the label Children and Family Services. Upon the heels of Florida's fairly stringent welfare reform act (WAGES) that forced single mothers to go to work, leaving their children in the care of others, the Florida Legislature passed in 1998 a sweeping "Privatization of Foster Care and Related Services Act."

 

The 2000 Florida Legislature passed more bills, changed the word "privatization" into the phrase "community based child welfare," eliminated the watchdog health and human services boards, and eliminated also a statewide advisory body to the secretary.  The Statewide Health and Human Services Board had been constituted of representatives of the district boards. Now there is no line of communication from the local communities to the secretary except through the secretary's own appointed administrators who serve at the will of the secretary.

 

Since the elimination of the health and human services boards, there has been no official local voice calling attention to the problems for a whole range of services, not just for foster care and protective services. That is why the "alumni" of the defunct statewide board have established a new voluntary non-profit organization, the Florida Health and Human Services Board, Inc.  The purposes of this new organization are to call attention to the need for integration of this wide array of services to all of our underserved populations, with special attention to prevention, and, especially, to do what they can to put community into community based care. More information on the FHHSB is available at the web site, http://www.fhhsb.org/.

 

 

Alvin W. Wolfe, Ph.D.

Chair, Florida Health and Human Services Board, Inc.

17920 Burnside Road

Lutz, FL  33548

Telephone:  (813)949-4673

email address:  fhhsb@tampabay.rr.com

 

The writer is Distinguished University Professor Emeritus, Anthropology, at the University of South Florida, but, of course, he is not speaking for the University.  Office telephone: (813)949-4673 Email: fhhsb@tampabay.rr.com