The Verzosa family in Florida lost their 7 children because the mother had a learning disability. It took years of fighting the Florida child welfare system to get their children back home. Original Story.

Commentary by Terri LaPoint
Health Impact News

“It’s here too.” That is the cry of parents and advocates all over the United States as they watch the media frenzy about the separation of parents and children at the border.

They had a similar response as they watched the outcry about Baby Alfie earlier this year and Charlie Gard last year, both in the U.K.

Parents are frustrated that the media and the public virtually ignore the fact that these forced separations and medical kidnappings happen here too. Hundreds of thousands of families are separated here, to the sound of crickets from the media.

This week, Richard Wexler, the executive director of the National Coalition for Child Protection Reform, wrote a piece for Youth Today exposing the harsh reality that the media in Florida is responsible for escalating the numbers of families separated by the child welfare system.

More children, not fewer, have been placed into greater danger than they were in before by the very system purported to protect them. On his blog, he introduces the article thus:

Young children torn from their parents, sleeping in a different bed every night. Families torn apart needlessly – and illegally — over and over again.

But this time it’s not the U.S.-Mexico border.  This time it’s Florida.

Who says it’s illegal? A report commissioned by the state itself.

Why is it happening? In part because caseworkers are terrified of “media consequences” if they leave a child in her or his own home and something goes wrong.

It has been a long-standing American principle of justice that we, as a society, would rather see a guilty man go free than an innocent man be punished for a crime he didn’t commit.

The very foundation of justice states that citizens are “innocent until proven guilty.”

Yet when it comes to families, the prevailing logic of the child protective system is that children are separated from their families “just in case” the parents MIGHT harm them.

It’s “for the children,” of course, and “in the best interest of the child,” they say, but how many children are destroyed as they are ripped out of the arms of loving parents and family members?

In the family court/child welfare system, parents are presumed guilty even when they have evidence of their innocence. They can be sentenced to the equivalent of the death penalty for a family – termination of parental rights – and that sometimes happens based on the societal fear that something might happen to the child in the future.

In the Tampa area of Florida, a peer review team appointed by the head of the Florida Department of Children and Families (DCS), Mike Carroll, found that fear of media consequences has led to illegal seizures (we would call those “kidnappings”) of large numbers of children “needlessly.”

According to Richard Wexler’s article, “Tampa Child Welfare Puts Too Many Kids in Foster Care Due to Media Fear, State Report Says,” social workers take children they shouldn’t take and place them in harm’s way out of fear of repercussions to themselves:

The peer review found that workers in Hillsborough County are so terrified of having one of their cases land them on the front page after a tragedy that they are illegally taking large numbers of children needlessly. According to the report:

Professionals in the system of care are often unnecessarily risk adverse due to the fear of child fatalities and media consequences. … [E]xtreme caution and risk aversion responses do not guarantee that tragic results will be avoided, and can cause unnecessary trauma to children.

Indeed, as WFLA documented in this tragic case, it can cause a child to die in foster care after being taken from a mother just because that mother is poor.

What “risk averse” really means is that child welfare investigators, supervisors and officials are increasing the risk to children in order to decrease the risk to themselves. (Emphasis added by HIN)

The report confirms what many families have reported to us at Health Impact News. The number of children taken by child protective services tends to increase drastically after a publicized tragic death of a child. In the effort to prevent such tragedy, innocent families are traumatized. It is much like comments made by doctors defending a high unnecessary cesarean section rate:

The only c-section I have been sued for is the one I didn’t do.

How many innocent families are destroyed, how many children are subjected to the horrors of bad foster homes or group homes, how many children die in state custody, in order to prevent one tragedy at the hands of abusive parents?

Social Workers Take Children Unnecessarily

According to the article:

The report found that investigators in Hillsborough County rush to remove children “without sufficient exploration, consideration, or conversation around reasonable efforts to prevent removal …”

The report notes that violates state and federal law. Yes, such illegal behavior is routine across the country — what is unusual is when it gets so flagrant that a child welfare system’s “peers” can’t look the other way.

Wexler links to an article from 2016 citing a report from Alaska:

Yes, the reasonable efforts clause has lots of loopholes. But it does not say “make reasonable efforts unless you don’t have time.”

Unfortunately, the federal government does almost nothing to enforce this law, so it’s often ignored.

The penalty for ignoring the law is losing federal aid for that case. But to “prove” it has complied with the requirement a child welfare agency need merely show that a judge has checked a box on a form.

Wexler continues his analysis of the Tampa report:

The bias extends to extended families. The report found a disturbing “lack of effort” to place children with relatives even though kinship care is the least harmful form of foster care.

This finding is consistent with what our research has shown. We have had many cases where relatives are lined up to care for their family member, yet social workers lie to the courts saying that there are “no suitable kinship placements.”

The children are placed into the more profitable (for the state) stranger placement, bypassing even relatives who are caring for other foster or adopted children. The relatives were deemed acceptable by the system to take in other unrelated children, just not their own family members.

This is not the first official confirmation of needless removal of children in Hillsborough County. In December, 2017, a representative of the Florida Attorney General admitted that, as WFLA put it, some children in the county “are separated from their parents due to poverty and nothing else.”

Report – Social Workers Afraid of Media Attention

Wexler describes the “peer review team” appointed to conduct the investigation into failures by the Hillsborough County child protective services:

As the name suggests, the group was made up of people who are or were themselves key players in running various aspects of child welfare — in other words, a group likely to identify less with the victims of the mess than the perpetrators.

But even this highly sympathetic jury of system peers couldn’t look away.

Their report indicts just about everyone involved in the child welfare system in Hillsborough County (metropolitan Tampa), Florida. By extension, it’s also an indictment of the state’s two most prestigious newspapers, the Miami Herald and the Tampa Bay Times, since their shoddy journalism set off the foster-care panic at the root of the problems and has kept that panic going.

The report found significant problems within the system as it honed in on the “why” of children being needlessly seized from their families:

As stunning as the findings is the candor with which the peer review team zeroed in on the real problem: the fear caused by misleading journalism from the state’s two most prominent newspapers.

About a decade ago, Florida had been making impressive progress transforming what had been among the worst child welfare systems in the country. Needless removal of children had been curbed and independent evaluations found child safety improved.

Then the Miami Herald decided to scapegoat efforts to keep families together for deaths of children “known-to-the-system.” That effort began in 2011. My organization set up a website to respond. Those efforts reached a fever pitch with the publication of a series called “Innocents Lost” in 2014.

As we noted in our full rebuttal to “Innocents Lost,” the Herald distorted data, took information out of context, got time frames wrong and systematically left out facts that contradicted the reporters’ point of view.

The stories had the intended effect. The number of children torn from their homes soared. That led to one tragedy after another. And, of course, children “known to the system” kept right on dying. The only people who benefitted from “Innocents Lost” were the reporters and editors at the Herald.

Then the Tampa Bay Times joined in, with editorials demanding that more children be taken away. So it’s no wonder the peer review report found that everyone in Hillsborough County child welfare is scared of “media consequences.”

As the horrors caused by the foster care panic became more apparent in Hillsborough County, the Tampa Bay Times showed little interest in the suffering it caused. It was only the reporting of WFLA-TV that brought the crisis to light, and forced the state to name the peer review team.

As WFLA led, the Times usually would follow with a weaker version of the story the next day. And when the peer review team issued its report, the Times story left out entirely the findings about widespread needless removal of children, the violation of state and federal laws and workers’ fear of “media consequences.”

The proposed solution to all this from the DCS head appears to be bureaucratic pretense. According to Wexler:

As for the DCF Secretary, Mike Carroll, he has responded to the peer review team report with decisive action! Nope, just kidding again.

He’s demanding a “corrective action plan” from the private agency that’s sort of in charge of child welfare in the region, Eckerd Connects. (I say “sort of” because one of the other report findings is that no one is really in charge of child welfare in Hillsborough County.)

So allow me to save everyone a lot of time and paperwork. Here’s the corrective action plan: Stop letting two newspapers effectively run child welfare in Florida. Because they’re running it into the ground.

Read the full article at Youth Today.