TAMPA — Two years ago, Hillsborough County logged an unprecedented number of deaths of children under state care, a rate higher than any other region in Florida.
Nine children, all under the age of 3, died within 18 months under the watch of Hillsborough Kids Inc., the county's lead child protection agency.
That staggering number led the Florida Department of Children and Families to not renew its $65.5 million contract with the agency. Eckerd Youth Alternatives took over in July 2012 at the same contract rate.
Since a program that enables Eckerd to identify the most severe risks among children in the county was launched in January 2013, there have been no deaths here of kids under state supervision.
"We had to start intervening in real time with families to really make a difference," Lorita Shirley, executive director of Eckerd, said in a presentation Thursday to the federal Commission to Eliminate Child Abuse and Neglect Fatalities.
"We wanted to have a good system in place so that no children were dying under our watch," Shirley later said in an interview.
Last year under the leadership of Mike Carroll — who is now interim DCF secretary — Eckerd teamed up with software company Mindshare to create a database. It's based on a review of nearly 1,500 cases and flags high-risk homes — those with children under 3; young parents with a history of substance abuse, domestic violence or mental health issues; and homes that include a paramour, a term DCF uses for a boyfriend or girlfriend of a parent.
At any time, there are about 180 children with all these factors living in Hillsborough County, Shirley said.
When a high-risk child is identified, she said, a caseworker is sent to the home within a day to work with the family to adopt a plan to improve the situation. He or she remains with the case until it's resolved, checking in frequently.
DCF rolled out a similar statewide program in January that focuses on the investigative side of child welfare.
Carroll was the longtime managing director of the DCF Suncoast region that spans 11 counties from Pasco to Collier before he was promoted in April.
He was appointed by Gov. Rick Scott to lead the troubled agency after a Miami Herald investigation revealed the deaths of 477 Florida children since 2008 whose families had past interactions with DCF.
Contact Liz Crampton at email@example.com or (813) 226-3401. Follow @liz_crampton.