TAMPA, Fla. (WFLA) – The rate of removing children from their homes in child welfare investigations remains substantially higher in the Tampa Bay area compared to the rest of the state, according to data collected by the Florida Department of Children and Families.

The rate in the Suncoast Region – which is comprised of Hillsborough, Pinellas, Pasco, Sarasota, Manatee and six other counties including Lee – was nearly six children per 100 alleged victims in July. The rate for the rest of the state was 38% lower, coming in at just over four children per 100.

The rates have fallen sharply since last August, when nearly eight per 100 were removed in the Suncoast Region. At that time, the state rate was nearly six per 100. Since 2007, the rate in the Tampa Bay area peaked at nearly nine per 100 in September of 2019.

Victoria Davis, one of many local parents who claim their children should not have been removed from their homes, went to court in Tampa this week to regain permanent custody of her infant who was removed last July.

“It was very stressful,” Davis said. “They don’t have anything in place to make this process expedient in anyway and I feel like they just don’t care.”

Davis lost custody after a fight with the child’s father in a West Tampa neighborhood got especially ugly. Records show police were involved but there is no indication the child was injured. Neither Davis nor the father was charged.

The altercation erupted about a month after Davis secured a protective order against the father.

She lost the child for about a year but now has temporary custody. She said a plan is in place with DCF for her to regain permanent custody.

But according to Davis, the reunification process has been difficult, including four case managers in about a year.

“And each time I get a new case manager they say they don’t have access to the records from the previous case manager,” Davis said. “So far in the last 13 months, he’s been to three different foster homes and three different day cares and all of that was unnecessary because I had complied. I did my case plan.”

Child welfare experts have said the rate of removal is a major contributor to the Tampa Bay area’s lack of licensed beds.

Richard Wexler, executive director of the National Coalition for Child Protection Reform, said the rate of removal could be one reason behind the problem of Tampa Bay area children sleeping in offices.

“Although we know about the horror stories, they are a tiny percentage of the cases that these agencies deal with,” Wexler said. “Far more common are cases where family poverty is confused with neglect.”

Wexler said rates in other states have benefited from policy changes that forced law enforcement to be more prudent about which children are removed.

Law enforcement officials have pointed out erring on the side of caution can save lives.

According to Wexler, one way to streamline the process is for states to invest in high-quality defense teams for families.

“If your problem is the sheriff is dropping kids on your doorstep when he shouldn’t, you need someone who can fight back,” Wexler said. “Someone who will go to court and say, ‘Your honor. This is not right. This child is better off at home.'”

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