A few months ago I ran across an article on Florida’s Early Childhood Intervention Courts, a program used for foster children ages 0-3 years. To include an infant mental health specialist, the program involves a multidisciplinary team that meets with the biological parents regularly and focuses on the child’s mental health issues that interfere with a proper parent-child relationship. The court prods things along by holding monthly hearings to check progress. Clearly, this requires many more resources than the typical foster care case, but it achieves amazing results and virtually eliminates children being placed back into the foster care system after reintegration. I showed the article to my presiding judge and he suggested that I travel to Florida to see how the teams and courts implement this program. My chief judge approved and I planned for this “exploratory” trip, skeptical that I’d learn anything that could be implemented before the Kansas Dept. of Children and Families (DCF) made dramatic changes in Topeka.
What began as an information gathering trip on a limited set of cases quickly evolved into something much more. I invited DCF to send a representative, as well as the District Attorney’s office. Not only did DCF respond favorably, but DCF Secretary Gina Meier-Hummel, and Regional Director Thomas Buell joined our team, as well as an ADA and Court Services Officer. This was just the beginning of the surprises to come.
Before I share what we discovered in three very populous Florida counties (Dade, with more than 3 million; and Palm Beach and Broward, with more than 1.5 million each), it’s important to understand that when compared to national averages, Kansas is just that, average. Average case length for all case plans is 19.7 months, average; the average for adoptions is 30 months, average; and just about every other measure is also average. Thus, except for the profoundly improved outcomes for 0-3 cases, none of us expected to pick up much from observing the Florida “dependency” courts that could dramatically impact all Kansas cases.
I can sum up the most shocking surprise of our trip in this way. Shooting for the averages when contrasted with the results in the Florida system (which, but the way, also uses private contractors), as well as Texas, for that matter (I’ll get back to Texas later), has set our foster care system house on fire and before we can pursue anything like Florida’s Early Childhood Intervention Courts we must put out the fire.
Florida judges aim for permanency at 12 months with an average case length of less than 18 months. Average case length for adoption is under 24 months. Judge Cindy Lederman in Dade County, Judge Kathleen Kroll in Palm Beach, and Judge Hope Bristol of Broward believed their adoption cases seldom stretched out past 18 months. A few things these Florida judges did, with total support of Florida’s DCF, was order termination motions to be filed at 6 months and proceed with termination at 9-12 months if the parents continue to be noncompliant. Also, every kid gets the Florida equivalent to a Court Appointed Special Advocate (CASA). Most important, these judge order concurrent case plans of Reunification and Adoption from day one so once it’s clear reunification isn’t viable, the contractor and DCF have already begun on adoption tasks. Following termination, adoptions are finalized in 90 days. The only substantial delay is when parents appeal terminations, which adds 4-5 months. In Kansas, we’re lucky to finalize 12 months after termination. When considered in light of Florida’s system, this is unacceptable.
The most shocking event that happened was in Judge Lederman’s court on Monday. Parents relinquished about two weeks before the review hearing. She ordered finalization on National Adoption Day, November 17, 2018. That is unheard of in Kansas courts. Not any more.
My conclusion is that Kansas shouldn’t be shooting for the average. We should be aiming for what the most effective states are doing, which brings me to Texas. I already knew that Texas appointed CASAs for almost all kids (here, we’re luck to have enough CASAs for 10% of the kids), but I was curious whether Texas was closer to the Florida or Kansas model. In Texas, the length for family reunification is 13 months, relative adoption 24 months, and non-relative adoption at 29 months. As in Florida, Texas’s numbers are much better than Kansas.
Sec. Hummel agrees that Kansas must strive to substantially outperform the averages, to aim for excellence and not mediocrity. I’m ecstatic she saw what we did. She supports whatever the courts do to move their case outcomes closer to the Florida numbers. I’m also looking forward to what she does to compel all contractors that handle these cases to modify their protocols to move Kansas toward these model jurisdictions and away from the averages. Average is a lousy achievement when it means that many Kansas foster kids will get lost in the numbers.