9 Investigates: Florida’s foster care failures

SEMINOLE COUNTY, Fla. — 9 Investigates continues to push the state’s child welfare system for answers after a Sanford foster father was arrested and accused of creating pornography featuring the children in his care.

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Investigators say they found thousands of clips from cameras hidden around Justin Johnson Sr.’s home. It’s been exactly a month since Investigative Reporter Karla Ray asked the Department of Children and Families for information on how often his home was inspected, and how often those foster children were interviewed during his nearly three years as a licensed foster parent.

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DCF relies on community-based care organizations to manage the foster care system. In Orange, Osceola and Seminole Counties, where this happened, that lead agency is Embrace Families, a 9 Family Connection partner.

Though Embrace couldn’t speak about this case specifically, the president painted a picture for us of a strained system that will never be perfect, even with the most rigorous checks and balances.

Justin Johnson Sr. is accused of the unthinkable inside his Sanford home, placing hidden cameras to capture images of foster children naked and taking his own videos by cellphone, featuring victims as small as 18 days old. He was licensed to care for those children through Embrace Families.

“We believe we have a robust process to evaluate our foster families, but we need to scrutinize that, given these accusations,” Embrace President Glen Casel said. “And so we will, we will be harder on ourselves than anybody else will.”

Casel agreed to sit down with us to provide context we haven’t been able to get from DCF about the process for screening foster parents, and the checks and balances in place after someone enters the system. The state requires a Level 2 background check, training and a home assessment before approving a foster parent. In Central Florida, Embrace requires more hours of training than state law.

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“You can’t be blind to the reality, there are bad people who live amongst us, and they want to harm our children,” Casel said. “We have to stop them. We have to protect our kids.”

Johnson Senior has no criminal history that would have disqualified him from becoming a foster parent, but in the short time since he became licensed in 2019, we uncovered some major life changes; he got a divorce and filed for bankruptcy. We asked if life events like those should prompt removal of children from the home.

“Financial strains and challenges, changing jobs, changing homes, changing marital status, those disruptions in your life, warrant a review, but they don’t necessarily disqualify somebody,” Casel explained.

Additional guidelines for child and home visits during the Covid-19 health emergency are now available. To see the...

Posted by Embrace Families on Thursday, March 26, 2020

It’s worth noting that the majority of Johnson’s time as a foster father was during the pandemic. We asked DCF how often his home was being visited and how often the children there were being interviewed. Those are details Casel couldn’t disclose, but he did admit that for several months in 2020, about 1 in 3 home visits were done virtually, and the pandemic put even more pressure on an already overworked system with historically high caseloads for social workers and high turnover.

“When a system is strained like this, is there more room for error or haste in choosing the right foster parents?” Karla Ray asked.

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“Pressure breeds those kinds of challenges. We would never want to sacrifice quality, or sacrifice our standards in order to get through a tough time,” Casel said. “But challenging times bring those kinds of challenges, you have to really be disciplined to say that, just because I need a staff member, I don’t want to lower my expectation of what that staff member should be trained to do, just because I need a foster home, I don’t want to lower that standard.”

Embrace Families is working directly with law enforcement on this case, and Casel says they want justice to be served for those kids. Casel is looking into whether his staff could be better trained to recognize potential situations like this in the future but he pointed out that social workers are not law enforcement and aren’t equipped to act as investigators would.

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Karla Ray

Karla Ray, WFTV.com

Karla Ray anchors Eyewitness News This Morning on Saturday and Sundays, and is an investigative reporter for the 9 Investigates unit.