TAMPA, Fla. — Relatives who claim Florida’s child welfare system broke their families apart aren’t giving up despite a judge dismissing their original complaint earlier this year, calling it a “shotgun complaint.” The term is used to describe legal complaints that are too broad, contain too many accusations, and lack clarity on what plaintiffs are seeking.
“As long as there’s breath, we're going to fight. We're not going to stop,” said Lisa Crutch, whose granddaughter was just 12 weeks old when she was removed from her biological parents in 2017 after a nurse suspected abuse.
Nine months ago, Crutch's family filed a lawsuit accusing the Florida Department of Children and Families (DCF) and its contracting agencies of lying, falsifying documents or manipulating facts to keep children from being placed with biological family members.
But in a newly amended lawsuit filed just last month, Crutch’s family, along with eight other families, are accusing Florida’s foster care system of violating their First Amendment Rights by having “customs and policies” that separate siblings, ignore family visitation rights and deprive able and willing family members from getting custody of young relatives.
DCF Amended Complaint March 23 by ABC Action News on Scribd
The lawsuit alleges some of those customs are “widespread throughout the Florida foster care system.”
In other cases, the lawsuit alleges, people who are not related to the child but are somehow connected to the foster care system are granted custody of the children in place of ready, willing and able biological relatives.
“She has siblings. She has a huge family that she knows nothing about,” said Lisa Crutch about her granddaughter.
Records the family provided to us last year showed the baby entered the system after a nurse noticed bruising when the baby’s mother took her to the ER over what she thought was pain in the baby’s leg. Medical records they provided us showed that a broken clavicle was the result of a traumatic birth.
Still, the child’s young parents lost their parental rights, and family members, including Crutch, who’s the baby’s maternal grandmother, were all denied custody. In Crutch’s case, she said, child welfare workers falsely accused her of abusing her then-18-year-old son, which prohibited her from taking custody of her granddaughter.
The baby’s paternal grandparents got custody of the baby’s brother but the granddaughter was removed from the home and family and eventually adopted by non-relative foster parents. According to the lawsuit, the foster father was a board member at the time for the same contracted foster agency that fought to terminate the parents' rights.
“What they did was not right. What they did was unfair. They took a child from a beautiful loving family,” said Crutch.
A different family, a similar story
“Nobody cares and loves them like I do,” said Curt Houston of Tampa. He and his wife, Althea, are also still fighting for custody of their two grandchildren nearly five years after the children’s mother, Curt’s daughter, died of a drug overdose.
Despite an approved home study and background checks, the Houstons were denied custody, in part, because of the children’s bond with their foster mom, according to paperwork they provided us. The documents also described a lack of any “significant bond” with Curt, the children’s biological grandfather.
“Why should we sit back and say, 'hey, you could have them? It’s not going to work that way,” said Curt’s wife, Althea.
Families want their young relatives to return home
“We’re not asking for money. “We’re simply asking for these families to be kept together,” explained Octavia Brown, one of the attorneys representing the families in the amended complaint. Brown is also a former DCF attorney and said DCF has a clear pattern.
“They rush to judgment and take all the children out. Rather than go in with a scalpel, they go in with a sledgehammer and destroy these families,” Brown explained.
While DCF does not comment on pending litigation, a department spokesperson sent us a statement repeating what they told us last year. It stated, in part, “We have been extremely clear with you about the importance of child and family well-being and the lengths we go to keep families intact and to ensure siblings are placed together” when a removal is necessary, the statement reads.
According to data available through Kids Count, just over 40% of children in Florida are adopted by relatives. That number is consistent over the last several years and among the highest of states nationwide when it comes to relative placement statistics.
But nearly a year after their initial lawsuit, these two separate families maintain that’s not what happened to them and they’re still fighting to get a Judge to agree.
“One day, they’re going to look online and see that their grandparents didn’t just give them up. We didn’t just say oh, we don’t want them. We fought and we fought, and we fought,” said Althea Houston.