Volusia County shooting highlights issues with Florida juvenile justice, foster care systems

VOLUSIA COUNTY, Fla. — A shooting in Volusia County involving two children who ran away from a group home is highlighting issues with Florida’s patchwork of services for kids in need.

Since 2013, the number of kids entering the foster care system has jumped by more than 25% as the state has cut money from juvenile justice and struggled to hire staff for the Department of Children and Families.

WATCH: Sheriff releases bodycam, aerial video of shootout between deputies, 2 armed children

Many of the problems in Florida’s foster care system date back to the early 2000s when the state decided to privatize foster care, pushing decisions onto 17 nonprofits across the state, while the juvenile justice side of the ledger has been covered in red ink.

After watching his deputes face gunfire from two children involved in the system, Sheriff Mike Chitwood’s anger boiled over, with him lashing out at the state’s juvenile justice system.

“My deputies showed more restraint than I’m showing right now. Because I am furious that we could be burying somebody tonight,” Chitwood said.

PHOTOS: Girl, 14, injured in shootout with deputies

Florida’s juvenile justice program has seen its budget for residential treatment cut in the last two budgets, including an $18 million cut just signed into law on Wednesday.

As for the Methodist home where the kids in Volusia County were staying, one problem there is volume. The home gets about a quarter of its funding from DCF, which has seen an increase in caseloads.

The number of kids in the foster care system has grown from 17,000 in 2013 to more than 22,000 in 2021.

Photos: Body-camera, aerial images of shootout between Volusia County deputies and 2 kids

The kids that interact with the juvenile justice system and the Department of Children and Families are known as “crossover youth,” who end up in group homes that may not be able to handle them.

A statement from the Florida United Methodist Children’s Home, from where the children involved in Tuesday’s shooting ran away, laid bare a growing problem in Florida’s juvenile justice and foster care system: more kids coming through with escalated behaviors that the foster homes can’t handle.

“We pay a price for that, taxpayers pay a price, society pays a price, the children pay a price,” said Leroy Pernell, a juvenile justice expert with Florida A&M University College of Law.

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“A foster home is a possible disposition, but that is not the primary purpose of a foster home.”

Foster homes are not meant for kids with extreme behavioral issues, but that’s not always how it plays out.

“I think we need to evaluate the entirety of these programs,” said Sen. Jeff Brandes - (R) District 24.

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Brandes has been a staunch advocate for criminal justice reform. He said cuts to juvenile justice have made a bad problem that much worse, with kids who should not be in foster care ending up there, amid a budget and staffing crunch exacerbating challenges.

“We know this is a major problem in the Department of Corrections, where we have over 60% in emergency staffing right now. It’s begun to trickle down to juvenile justice where they are having a very difficult time maintaining staffing,” Brandes said.

The juvenile justice system is broad, and at its core is designed to rehabilitate children and offer them protection, but funding cuts and caseloads often mean kids don’t get sent to the right place for their adequate care.

Sarah Wilson, WFTV.com

Sarah Wilson joined WFTV Channel 9 in 2018 as a digital producer after working as an award-winning newspaper reporter for nearly a decade in various communities across Central Florida.