TAMPA, Fla. — Three months after Investigative Reporter Katie LaGrone and photojournalist Matthew Apthorp were the first journalists to share a new lawsuit accusing Florida’s child welfare system of going out of its way to break families apart, 18 additional families have now joined the suit.
“People saw your story on the news. People said it happened to me,” said Attorney Valentina Villalobos with Community Law for Families & Children.
Since our initial story aired, Villalobos said her phone hasn’t stopped ringing.
“I can’t even answer my own phone right now, I need an assistant screening my calls,” she said in regards to the volume of calls she’s been getting from families sharing similar stories.
A total of 22 families now claim Florida’s Department of Children and Families, along with its child welfare partners including Florida’s Governor, Florida’s Surgeon General and the head of the state’s Guardian Ad Litem Program, have all violated family rights by denying relatives custody of young family members who enter the state’s care.
“They just stonewalled us,” said Curtis Houston. He’s among the 18 new families joining the lawsuit.
We first met him and his wife back in July, after they told us they were never notified their two grandchildren had been transferred into the state’s care after the children’s mother died of a drug overdose in 2018.
Earlier this year, the Houston’s were denied custody of their grandchildren after it was determined the children had developed a strong bond with their foster mom and lacked any “significant bond” with their biological grandfather.
The Houston’s claim workers within the state’s child welfare system constantly made things difficult by canceling visits at the last minute and not notifying them of case updates and hearings.
“We’ve been through, forgive the expression, we’ve been through hell and back,” said Mrs. Houston.
In the newly filed 45-page amended complaint, workers within the state’s child welfare system are accused of:
- failing to conduct diligent searches for biological relatives
- fabricating evidence or manipulating facts to disqualify some biological family members from getting custody of young relatives
- serving as an internal diversion system that allows “foster system connected-staff” can children of their choice
It’s among the serious allegations now being lodged against the state which, some families also alleged, results in violating children’s First Amendment rights by tearing them apart from their siblings.
“They lost everything. Why continue to split them?” asked Taylar Point and her husband, Fredrick Benton, who said that’s what happened to their young nieces.
“When they don't have their parents, at least having a sibling would make that easier,” they said.
Point and her husband told us they didn’t even know their baby niece had entered foster care in 2019 until child welfare workers contacted them to adopt her eight months later.
Benton aged out of foster care himself.
“So, I understand the system. My initial reaction was why didn't nobody reach out to me?” he asked.
Benton and his wife agreed to adopt their niece and said they went through background checks, multiple home studies, and classes and even got the blessing of the state’s adoption review committee.
In the end, they said, they were denied custody due to the child’s bond with her foster mom and concerns over the aunt’s previous history of marijuana use. But the couple was later granted permanent custody of the child’s younger sister.
“So you were able to get custody of one child and not the other?” asked Reporter LaGrone. “How does that make sense?"
“It doesn’t,” Point responded.
Studies show children are better off growing up with their biological families and their siblings. In fact, the research is so strong, that state and federal law mandate child welfare systems search for willing and able relatives before separating siblings or placing a child with a non-relative stranger.
“I think it’s incompetence in the system,” said the families’ attorney Villalobos, who also worked for the state’s Guardian Ad Litem program, which serves as legal advocates for children in state care.
“I would see the state regularly choose foster parents over relatives and the excuse would commonly be, well where were the relatives from day one why didn’t they step up? In hindsight the truth was a lot of them didn’t know,” she explained.
By law, cases involving child placement are confidential.
In response to this amended complaint, Laura Whitehall, spokesperson for Florida’s Department of Children and Families stated in an emailed response,
“The department works tirelessly on finding relative and non-relative caregiver placements for Florida children. Keeping families together is of the utmost importance, and in some instances, that is not possible. In those cases, “the department works with our partners to make sure placements and services are in the best interest of the child.”
According to data we found, more than 40% of children in Florida are adopted by relatives. That percentage is consistent over the last several years and among the highest of states nationwide.
“Do you really think only half the kids in care have family that can care for them? I don’t,” said attorney Villalobos
Neither do the 22 families now suing the state and said they’re proof the system created to support children and keep families together doesn’t always work out that way.
“She'll know her family never stopped looking for her. We love her,” said Point. “We can't express that to her, so we want to leave something that we can show her that we love her. We don’t want this to happen to another family,” she said.