TAMPA, Fla. — More families are sharing personal stories of how, they claim, Florida's child welfare system went out of its way to break their families apart.
"They just stonewalled us," Curt Houston of Tampa said.
He and his wife haven't seen their grandson and granddaughter in person since 2018, the same year the children's mother [Houston's daughter] died of a drug overdose. Their dad isn't in the picture.
The Houstons want to raise their grandchildren and have been fighting Florida's Department of Children and Families (DCF) for custody since the young children were placed in foster care four years ago.
But the state denied them, choosing instead to keep the children with their foster mother, who the children refer to as "mother" according to a DCF denial letter that the Houstons received earlier this year. The Houstons provided us with a copy of the letter.
"DCF, I feel like they run the courtroom and the judge. We've been through hell and back," Althea Houston said. "These are our grandchildren. They are all we have left off our daughter."
The Houstons aren't alone. Dozens of families contacted Investigative Reporter Katie LaGrone after she reported on a new lawsuit alleging similar claims by families, calling out the state's foster care system for how it handles kinship cases.
Last month, LaGrone exclusively shared the details of an explosive new lawsuit filed by four other families who claim the state's foster care system and its employees fabricated evidence, hid and withheld key information and ignored state and federal family laws so system workers could "internally divert" children away from their biological family members.
Those children were then, allegedly, placed with system-connected people who wanted a child of their choice.
"It's screwed up," the Houstons said.
They also provided us a copy of a 2021 approved home study in which neither grandparent was flagged for having any "disqualifying offenses" and their home is described as "clean and appropriate for children."
Still, their request to take custody was denied.
In addition to the children's bond with their foster mother, the biological grandfather is described as missing four online visits with the children last year. Houston denies it, calling the accusations part of the state's manipulation of the facts.
"I showed up to every visit. I was on camera ready to go," Houston said even when it meant he had to leave his job at Publix early that day.
While Florida's foster care system plays a critical role in protecting children and families with thousands of success stories, the families we spoke to all said they were unjustly denied from caring for young biological relatives who ended up in the state's care when their parents were deemed not fit to care for them.
"It's indescribable. It was a system I trusted and I shouldn't have," Susan Carrier of Broward County said.
She lost her fight to get custody of her baby granddaughter in 2018. Carrier, who's an experienced neo-natal nurse and adopted her grandson years earlier, said by the time her daughter lost her battle with drug addiction in 2017; the state told Carrier she had waited too long to try and get her grandbaby.
Carrier knew the baby was in foster care and said she was helping her daughter recover and thought her daughter and grandbaby would be reunified. But when her daughter died and Carrier sought custody, she was denied.
According to the paperwork she provided us, part of the state's reason was the baby's "strong bond" with her foster parents with who she had been living.
"The state has duties to families in crisis and protocols to follow and they didn't do it. They simply gave my healthy, 10-month-old granddaughter to a family that wanted a child," she said.
Research shows children fare better living with biological family. In fact, the research is so strong that state and federal laws mandate state welfare systems must diligently search for ready, willing and able relatives before placing a child with a stranger in foster care.
"We just felt like she was basically kidnapped from us," Trena Robinson and her sister, Tala Thompson, said.
Both live in Ohio with their extended families and also claim they were unjustly denied getting their baby niece placed with them earlier this year. The baby's mother struggles with addiction and already lost five of her other children.
All of the siblings have been placed with family members in Ohio, but Robinson and Thompson said trying to get their niece moved from Florida to Ohio has been a nightmare made worse by confusion and delays by systems in two states.
They said months passed before they could even get their home studies completed, which they both passed. The aunts said the baby wasn't assigned a special guardian ad litem until she was a year old.
In paperwork they provided to us, the baby's birth mother filed a motion requesting the baby be placed with family members in Ohio. But in May of this year, a Polk County judge denied the motion, stating the baby and her foster parents were "well bonded," according to court documents the family provided to us.
Records also showed the baby’s foster parents are employed as Guardian Ad Litem, or legal advocates for kids, in Florida’s foster care system.
The aunts believe the foster parents’' connection and work within the system biased their case and the judge's decision against them, though the foster parents did not serve as the baby's Guardian Ad Litem. A special guardian ad litem was eventually assigned to the case.
Still, Robinson is suspicious.
"She basically ran the show. You would have thought the foster mom was the caseworker," she said.
Child welfare systems, which are overburdened and understaffed, are often criticized for operating in secret and making up their own rules.
"Systemically, I think part of the problem is that we don't have a lot of information about what happens in child welfare overall," said Loyola University School of Law professor Dr. Sacha Coupet, a leading expert on kinship care, child welfare and family rights.
She said how child welfare systems handle kinship has raised long-standing concerns among relatives who claim they were bypassed, ignored or unjustly disqualified from getting custody of young family members. Coupet said families of color are also disproportionally impacted.
"Decision-making in this area is so discretionary," she added.
It remains unknown how many relatives seeking custody of young family members in foster care are denied. It's also unknown if Florida, or any state, even tracks the information. DCF has yet to provide answers to our questions about data.
A spokesperson with DCF also couldn't provide any answers or explanations to questions regarding any of the families we spoke with, including families named in the lawsuit.
Cases involving child placement and custody are, by law, confidential making it even more difficult for outsiders, including the media, to fully understand why some relatives seeking custody of loved ones are approved and others, who are deemed suitable to care for a child, are denied from taking in their own kin.
In data we found online and provided by Kids Count through the Annie E. Casey Foundation, the percentage of Florida children in 2020 who were adopted by a relative neared 50% which was consistent over the last several years and among the highest of states nationwide.
In an emailed statement, a DCF spokesperson said in general, "trained professionals evaluate each case and try to keep families together whenever it is possible and safe." When that's not possible, "the department works with partners to make sure placements and services are in the best interest of the child."
Not according to the families we spoke with, many of them are still fighting to keep their own families intact.
"We're not going to give up. She is our blood and she needs to be with us," Tala Thompson said about her niece.
"Our intention is getting our grandkids at any costs," Althea Houston said.
Read DCF”s full response:
As you know, the Department’s cases involving child placement and protective custody are confidential, so we are unable to respond to your specific case questions.
As a Department, our trained professionals evaluate each case and try to keep families together whenever it is possible and safe. In some instances, that is not possible, and in those cases, the Department works with our partners to make sure placements and services are in the best interest of the child.
Further, Florida law clearly lays out how the Department and the Court must handle removals and placements. Section 39.401(3), F.S., states:
If the child is taken into custody by, or is delivered to, an authorized agent of the Department, the agent shall review the facts supporting the removal with an attorney representing the Department. The purpose of the review is to determine whether there is probable cause for the filing of a shelter petition.
a. If the facts are not sufficient, the child shall immediately be returned to the custody of the parent or legal custodian.
b. If the facts are sufficient and the child has not been returned to the custody of the parent or legal custodian, the Department shall file the petition and schedule a hearing, and the attorney representing the Department shall request that a shelter hearing be held within 24 hours after the removal of the child.
c. While awaiting the shelter hearing, the authorized agent of the Department may place the child in out-of-home care, and placement shall be determined based on priority of placements as provided in s. 39.4021 and what is in the child’s best interest based on the criteria and factors set out in s. 39.01375.
d. Placement of a child which is not in a licensed shelter must be preceded by criminal history records check as required under s. 39.0138.
e. In addition, the Department may authorize placement of a housekeeper/homemaker in the home of a child alleged to be dependent until the parent or legal custodian assumes care of the child.
This prioritization is required to be followed any time there is a change to a child’s physical or legal placement after the child has been sheltered but before the child has achieved permanency except as otherwise provided in Chapter 39, F.S.
As said previously, we remain committed to ensuring the integrity of our mission: to work in partnership with local communities to protect the vulnerable, promote strong and economically self-sufficient families, and advance personal and family recover and resiliency.