Florida's Child Welfare Agencies Deserve a Fair Review of Kristina Hepp Case

One of our most important jobs as child welfare advocates is preventing child deaths.

The July 9 editorial in The Huffington Post, "When Foster Care Becomes Fatal," detailed the tragic death of Kristina Hepp but got several important details wrong. I agree with the column author that whenever a child dies, or is severely injured under our care, we have to look at what happened and what procedures can be put into place to ensure we do not make the same mistakes in the future.

However, the author misses the mark in his discussion of Florida's community-based care system and appears to be promoting a baseless and litigious agenda rather than dealing with any substantive facts.

First, the columnist's assertion that Florida's community-based care system is big business and questions their "not-for-profit" status, is nothing short of offensive and shows the utter lack of understanding of the state's child welfare system.

The non-profit organizations the Department of Children and Families (DCF) selects to serve as community-based care (CBC) lead agencies have grown over the last decade into mature agencies responsible for thousands of lives, millions of state funds and a wide array of services.

While the agencies receive millions of dollars in funding from the state, most agencies spend more than 95 percent of the funds they receive from the state to directly provide services for children and families in the state's care.

The agency being targeted by the column, Partnership for Strong Families (PSF), will receive $170 million in funding from the state between 2008 and 2014 that is true, but what the author neglects to reveal to readers is that more than 95 percent of that money will be used to provide services to vulnerable children and families. The remaining 5 percent covers indirect administrative costs such as quality assurance, technical support and administrative staff. As a nonprofit organization, PSF also includes a community board, composed of volunteer members with varying backgrounds and specialties from the community, who have oversight of fund allocations.

Additionally, PSF's contract with the state is a cost reimbursement contract governed by the strictest funding restrictions in the country. Not only is there zero profit in this "business," but what the funds can be spent on are limited by significant state and federal restrictions. Every penny that is spent has to have state approval and must meet the minimum threshold of reasonable, allowable and necessary.

This approach has been a blessing for children and a bargain for Florida taxpayers. Working together, DCF and local agencies effectively utilize resources to safely reunite children, while preventing entry/re-entry into foster care and continuously re-investing the savings into local systems of care.

Next the column goes on to bring up the wrongful death lawsuit that was filed against PSF and its partner agency Devereux that was assigned to oversee Kristina's case. However, while the article attempts to lay blame for Kristina's death on the child welfare agencies, the article fails to mention that neither PSF nor its representatives were party to the dependency court case that resulted in custody of Kristina being awarded to her father, who eventually killed her.

Placement at the time the case was closed was with the mother, and custody of the child was given to the father more than 12 months afterward by order of Family Court. Neither DCF, PSF, nor any of its subcontractors were a party to this action.

The column's author, Spencer Aronfeld, a South Florida-based trial attorney who was not involved in the case, leads readers to believe that state child welfare agencies are skirting their responsibility for Kristina's death, but unfortunately when the lead and provider agency's oversight of the child is removed, there is nothing the agencies can do to intervene.

For far too long, some trial attorneys have attempted to make baseless claims like this against CBC and provider agencies. They are exploiting the very statute that created the community-based care system because it took child welfare services and activities out from under the protection of sovereign immunity, creating an unheard of opportunity for these trial attorneys to target and sue the state's child welfare agencies.

In fact, to call the state's community-based care agencies "big business" is nothing short of hypocrisy by Mr. Aronfeld. The real big business is the self-serving trial attorneys targeting child welfare providers for baseless lawsuits despite the courts repeatedly finding no evidence of negligence on the part of the agencies. In fact, in the Hepp case both the lower court and the 1st District Court of Appeal dismissed the case as baseless.

Florida's community-based care system is one of the most cost-effective models for providing child welfare services in the country. Its efficiencies have resulted in increased adoptions and fewer children in care or at risk as a result of successful prevention and intervention programs.

It's unfortunate that when these lawyers can't make their case in the courtroom they have to resort to false claims and baseless assertions in an attempt to influence the court of public opinion.

Kurt Kelly is a former member of the Florida House of Representatives and currently serves as the Chief Executive Officer and President of the Florida Coalition for Children. The Tallahassee-based non-profit coalition advocates for Florida's abused and neglected children and supports the agencies and individuals who work on their behalf.