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Florida child welfare system can’t handle violent youths, insiders say

Volusia County sheriff calls system a failure after shootout with two teens
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Posted at 4:37 AM, Jun 04, 2021
and last updated 2021-06-04 09:29:44-04

Following a recent police shootout involving two young Florida teens in Volusia County, the sheriff calls the system broken. Investigative Reporter Katie LaGrone found the system isn’t designed for kids with violent tendencies.

Body camera and chopper video from the Volusia County Sheriff’s Office showed the heart-pounding moments two teens opened fire on deputies Tuesday night.

Not old enough to drive a car, a 12-year old boy and 14-year-old girl ran away from a group home before they broke into a house and ransacked the place, Sheriff Mike Chitwood said Wednesday.

The duo found the homeowner’s guns inside including an AK47 and engaged in what the sheriff would later describe in a press conference as an "unimaginable 30-minute shootout between two kids and cops."

“He said he knew they were cops when he fired them, those are the words of a 12-year-old," Sheriff Chitwood said during the afternoon press conference Wednesday.

The 14-year-old girl was eventually shot twice after opening fire on deputies. She remains in critical but stable condition.

Most children are expected to face multiple charges including attempted first-degree murder.

The sheriff is now calling the state’s child welfare system broken and said group homes designed to care for kids in need are incapable of handling kids with violent tendencies. The kids had been placed at the Florida United Methodist Children’s Home in Enterprise, Florida, as part of its emergency shelter status.

“They are not capable of handling violent youth offenders, their staff is not trained for it,” he said.

It’s a problem we first reported two years ago when we found parents so desperate to get their kids proper mental health help, some were resorting to giving up custody of their children.

According to the Department of Children & Families (DCF), which oversees children in state custody including group homes, there are currently more than 36,000 kids receiving services. More than 60% of those children are getting that care outside of their homes, including at group homes that often house kids in foster care.

But it’s a system overloaded, underfunded and under-resourced insiders say.

“We don’t have the kind of programming and placements that are able to care for these kids and keep them safe,” said Dr. Chris Card, who leads the community-based care division for Eckerd Connects on Florida’s west coast.

His agency works with DCF to find placement for kids in need.

While the incident in Volusia County Tuesday night is rare, he said the number of kids entering the system in severe mental crisis is increasing.

“The kids that are coming into our system these days are so traumatized, have such high levels of behavior problems that it’s impossible for us to care for them properly,” Card said.

Card fears it will only get worse.

On Oct. 1, the new federal Family First Act goes into effect. The regulation aims to keep kids out of foster care and out of group homes by providing more services to families in need.

But some child welfare advocates fear it will make it tough for kids with the most critical needs to get help in group homes when parents are unable to provide the care needed.

“Every kid comes to us with different nuances and different behavior and trauma in their life and we can’t apply one treatment model and say everything’s going to be ok. Our system is struggling every day to try and find answers,” Card said.

“The juvenile justice system is broke, people need to face facts,” said Sheriff Chitwood