Published in the Tallahassee Democrat Online, Wednesday, November 7, 2001, updated at 9:26 PM

Foster Care Needs More State Support
On the whole, Florida’s thousands of foster parents are no doubt extraordinary souls who desire to help children. They’re certainly not in it for the money. Child advocate Jack Levine said Florida’s foster parents are reimbursed about 50 cents an hour for a daunting task: providing a warm, if temporary, haven for children who have been abandoned or abused by their parents.

But the state has relied too much on that spirit of altruism to protect the 20,000 children who are in foster homes. According to an investigative report by the Florida Times-Union, Florida’s rate of abuse - about one out of every 11 children - is 15 times higher than the national standard. Worse, the number of children abused in foster care has risen annually since 1998. That statistic was tragically illustrated by the recent death of 17-month-old Latiana Nakia Hamilton, who was beaten and drowned in her Jacksonville foster home.

Department of Children & Families officials have called the figures misleading and point out that most foster care parents do a good job.

There’s no way to fully erase the element of harm from any child care, but more thorough background checks might have saved Latiana. Her foster parents had been investigated for complaints of child mistreatment in Michigan. The complaints were substantiated, yet those records were neither required nor sought by the DCF when the couple was licensed for foster care in Florida. When the supervision of such vulnerable charges is at stake, this kind of information must be available. Florida Foster and Adoptive Parent Association President Suzanne Stevens said it’s imperative that the state recruit more foster parents; 4,200 homes for 20,000 children aren’t enough.

The state also must do more to prepare and support foster parents in their jobs. They must be fully informed of emotional or physical concerns about a foster child, and they should have access to support services ranging from mental health care to dentistry.

These improvements will take political will - and money. Overworked staffs may not have time to do essential background searches. But if the state can’t find better ways to keep children like Latiana from falling through the cracks, Floridians should be more than appalled – we should be ashamed.

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