Using a state database, USA TODAY reporters examined more than 1 million foster home placements going back a decade. They collected police reports, court records and government documents and ran background checks on every foster parent who had been assigned a child.
Reporters then crisscrossed the state to interview more than 100 survivors, parents, caseworkers and child advocates.
Among the findings:
The Department of Children and Families and the 17 private agencies that manage the child welfare system across Florida sent nearly 170 children to live in foster homes where the state had some evidence that abuse occurred. In 2016, two preschool girls said their Sarasota County foster father molested them. The state sent him 13 more children, stopping only when a third toddler reported that the 64-year-old had forced her to put his penis in her mouth.
Caseworkers ignored or overruled DCF safety guidelines to crowd children into foster homes not equipped to handle them. The number of foster homes caring for four or more kids almost doubled between 2014 and 2018, according to a USA TODAY analysis of child placement data.
The number of children under 10 sent to live in group homes doubled between 2013 and 2017, adding to the cost of care and the danger to children. Some were sent to places such as the Mount Dora-based National Deaf Academy even after a whistleblower lawsuit was filed in Lake County claiming that staff had held children down, punched them in the stomach, spat on them and denied them medical care.
As caseloads rose, child welfare workers skipped home visits and parent training sessions because they could not keep up with required safety checks. They fabricated logs to make it appear as if the sessions took place. When caseworkers lied and omitted information from their reports, children got hurt, according to lawsuits and DCF inspector general reports. One IG report told of a child who was sexually assaulted after an investigations supervisor falsely claimed a hotline call had been successfully investigated and provisions had been made for the safety of the children involved.
DCF and the nonprofit agencies in charge of foster care repeatedly tried to prevent USA TODAY from obtaining information about foster parents and the allegations against them. They would not provide a list of parent names and demanded $50,000 for search and copy fees for disciplinary records. In reaction to one USA TODAY records request, DCF officials pressed legislators to pass a law making foster parent names secret from the public – an effort that ultimately failed.
In a January statement, DCF Secretary Chad Poppell said many problems in Florida’s system stem from the decision to privatize foster care in the early 2000s, putting decision-making in the hands of 17 nonprofits across the state. When that happened, he said, DCF “faded into the background and became too distant from the front lines of child welfare.”
“This has led to a fractured system that is not appropriately resourced, lacks bandwidth for increases in children in care and is not performance-driven,” Poppell said. “This is not how I would design a system around my own children, and especially not our children in foster care.”
Poppell promised to fight for greater accountability and more “resources to drive performance and positive outcomes for families.”
During Florida’s legislative session, which adjourned in March, he secured at least $7 million for a quality assurance office that had been crippled by budget cuts during the Great Recession. His aim: to provide oversight and analysis needed to make sure the agency learns from its mistakes going forward.
In response to USA TODAY Network’s reporting on a longtime Sarasota County foster father charged with molestation, DCF also formed a task force with the Florida Department of Law Enforcement and child welfare subcontractors. The group has put together recommendations to improve its procedures for handling sex abuse investigations.
About the series
This is an ongoing investigative series about Florida’s child welfare system, which has taken an increasing number of kids into foster care without enough safe places to put them. Reporters at USA TODAY spent more than a year analyzing data and interviewing families, insiders and advocates, revealing how overwhelmed state officials put nearly two hundred foster children into the arms of abusers.
Contact the reporters
In the meantime, the COVID-19 pandemic provided a temporary respite from the surging removals. Reports of abuse and neglect fell with children out from under the watchful eyes of teachers, coaches and school administrators. But those numbers are expected to rise again once kids return to school in person.
Tasked with raising troubled kids, dealing with difficult relatives and navigating red tape, the majority of foster families in Florida have the best interests of children in mind. Many go out of their way to mentor biological parents and push for reunification. But in an overcrowded system, more families are asked to operate at or above full capacity and some become overwhelmed.
Florida’s child welfare system repeatedly risked children’s safety on foster parents with criminal records and abuse allegations, USA TODAY Network found.
In Lee County, child welfare workers placed 20 foster children with a couple over the course of six years despite multiple abuse allegations that DCF declined to explain. The stream finally stopped last year after police were approached by two boys who testified they had been whipped with belts and locked in cages.
In St. Johns County, child welfare workers sent more than 70 children to a foster family even though the foster father had a report of child abuse on his record dating back to 1996 – and a rap sheet that included felony drug possession, driving under the influence and disorderly conduct for brawling with a neighbor.
Last year, the foster father was sentenced to 25 years in prison for sexually abusing one of his foster daughters over a seven-year period beginning when the child was just 5.
“The system is so broken, it makes me want to cry,” said Brandy Towler, whose adoptive daughter lived with a Sarasota County foster parent arrested on molestation charges. “Our most vulnerable children are being preyed upon.”
Since the early 2000s, experts in child welfare have stressed the importance of keeping biological families together except in cases of last resort.
Like many other states, Florida took that approach and put resources into counseling parents or placing abused and neglected children with extended family members whenever possible.
For most of the previous decade, state officials measured their success by how few kids were taken from their parents.
But after the Miami Herald published a series of stories in 2014 revealing nearly 500 children had died when DCF left them in abusive homes, legislators pushed to change the fundamentals of Florida’s child welfare law.
With the backing of child advocacy groups, lawmakers unanimously passed reforms that included adding more investigators to crack down on abusive and neglectful parents and creating a critical response team to speed up interventions.
The new message: Child safety comes first, even if it breaks up more families.
“As a father and a grandfather, the safety of Florida children is a top priority,” then-Gov. Rick Scott said at the time. “That’s why in this session we succeeded in creating 270 additional child protective investigators, so we can decrease caseload and provide our servants in the field the support they need to ensure we’re doing everything possible to protect children.”
The impact was immediate. As some other states, like New York, California, Michigan and Alabama, reduced foster load by focusing on prevention, children in Florida were pulled from their homes in numbers not seen in a decade.
In Clay County, a suburb west of Jacksonville, the number of new foster children entering the system shot up by 60% from 2014 to 2015, according to DCF records.
In Putnam, a poor county just to the south, removals increased 205%. The numbers more than doubled in at least six counties: Charlotte, Gadsden, Glades, Flagler, Hamilton and Hernando.
Statewide, total children in the system reached a high-water mark of nearly 24,000 in 2017 – a 34% increase in five years.
Officials initially set aside $16 million to deal with the influx, but it wasn’t nearly enough.
Private agencies stepped up foster parent recruitment. But monthly payments to foster families ranged from $429 to $515 at the start of 2014, well below states such as Kentucky and Indiana, where basic room and board could top $700.
The state was able to add 900 foster homes – to handle 6,000 more children.
From 2014 through 2016, news reports from around the state showed what was happening to foster children who had nowhere to go. They bedded down in office buildings and in cars parked at a Wawa and a Dollar General in Hillsborough County. Infants were placed in emergency shelters designed for older children and cared for by shelter shift workers.
“Foster families are the lifeblood of the system,” said Mike Watkins, chief executive of Big Bend Community Based Care, which manages child welfare in Tallahassee and the Panhandle area. “If you don’t have a place to put these kids, bad things will happen.”
In Alachua County, a suicidal teenager was among the children left to spend the day in the offices of the Partnership for Strong Families, the nonprofit in charge of child welfare in the Gainesville area. Despite having run away 11 times between March and May of 2015 – and once from the partnership’s offices just eight days earlier – case managers left her “completely unsupervised” in the lobby of their building, according to claims in a lawsuit filed in 2017. The girl slipped out after telling caretakers she was going to the store. Police found her body the next day 40 miles away.
She had thrown herself 90 feet off a bridge into a ravine.
The lawsuit was settled in mediation.
In Collier County, a 9-year-old boy repeatedly told his caseworkers in late 2015 and early 2016 that he did not feel safe in the emergency shelter where he had been placed. “He was afraid of people holding him to the ground,” according to allegations in a lawsuit filed against the organizations charged with his care. By the time caseworkers saw bruises on his legs and arms, he had been sexually assaulted by a 16-year-old shelter resident, the lawsuit said.
Parties in the case reached a settlement last year.
Executives at nonprofit agencies sounded the alarm, begging state officials to send them more money to cover rising costs and find new foster parents.