Tempers flared last week as representatives from state and local agencies debated a troubling St. Johns County homeless youth case, that has, until recently, received little response from the Florida Department of Family and Children.
During a nearly two-hour unaccompanied youth meeting, local Judge John Alexander criticized the state on its internal policies and sluggish abuse hotline. He added that DCF’s seemingly knee-jerk reaction to the case involving a mother and four children living in the woods coincided with local news coverage of the family.
“The Department is asking not for one black eye, but two black eyes,” he said. “And you’re going to get it.”
First Coast News featured the story of mother Ericka Alderman and her four children two weeks ago, stating the family moved to St. Johns County for its schools and were displaced by Hurricane Matthew.
Within a week of the report’s release, the family was temporarily relocated to a hotel.
But handling of the matter prompted serious questions, bringing to light a series of roadblocks too complex to blame on any single party.
According to Kim McNickle, the homeless liaison for the St. Johns County School District, the family was being sheltered in the St. Francis House until Alderman decided to leave on her own terms.
“They were in St. Francis House, she didn’t like the rules and they left,” McNickle said. “She chose to live in a tent.”
The relocation prompted concern, McNickle said, because the homeless camp Alderman moved to included several men, some with criminal backgrounds. Calls from concerned school board members and St. Francis employees were placed to the Florida Abuse Hotline over a span of several weeks.
DCF’s involvement in abuse, abandonment or neglect cases begins with reports through its hotline.
“It’s got to go to the hotline before it comes to the Department,” explained Jonathan Growick, the managing attorney for Florida’s Children’s Legal Services. “Then the Department tries to work with the family for reasonable efforts to fix things and we see what we can do in the community to keep them together.”
But Alexander said the hotline is so bogged with reports, the response time is unreasonable.
“The hotline is the worst agency in the state, and has been,” he said. “I’ve made over 1,000 hotline calls over the years and only two years ago did I start getting reports back whether they accepted the call or not.”
He added that the children in this scenario should be removed from their mother.
“Is there anyone to argue, with a straight face, that those children aren’t at risk of abandonment or abuse or neglect?” he said.
Megan Wall, the managing attorney for St. Johns County Legal Aid, said removal isn’t always the best solution.
“Removing them can be a really bad move,” she said. “Foster homes aren’t necessarily better.”
Wall said DCF has been meeting with legal aid and school district representatives to resolve five cases a month. The meetings have been so successful, the Department has increased its resolution goals to 10 cases a month.
DCF’s internal policy requires efforts are made to keep families together and localize solutions utilizing community resources. Intervention and removal of children occurs only when efforts to solve the initial problem have failed.
“I would think it would be better to work on some interim solutions instead of jumping straight to removal,” Wall said.
Alexander said the Alderman case, like many others he’s seen, are beyond the help of interim solutions.
Billy Kent, the director of DCF’s Northeast Region Family and Community Services, agrees the case warrants investigation.
“[The mother] is making knuckle-headed decisions and the Department will have to deal with it,” he said.
He added that homelessness isn’t the sole burden of the state and criticized communication gaps between the county’s agencies.
“It takes a community,” Kent said. “Communication here seems a little poor.”
McNickle said the school district does its best to solve cases before pushing them to DCF, but each scenario varies in complexity. There are currently 634 homeless students being served by the school district, 105 of which are unaccompanied and lacking legal guardianship.
As if identifying homeless students and deciphering the weight of each situation isn’t difficult enough, McNickle said open housing is non-existent.
“I have three different families in a car,” she said. “It’s just so hard to find a place right now.”
And even when she does find shelter, like she did for the Alderman family, she can’t force them to stay.
“These people have several evictions and criminal records, landlords don’t want to rent to them,” McNickle said, adding later: “When they keep putting up walls, it’s hard to help them.”
The meeting concluded with more questions than answers. Heads of all parties collectively agreed gaps needed filling, but how and when to fill those gaps is yet to be seen.
“All I know is that children deserve better than this,” Alexander said.