Make us your home page

Today’s top headlines delivered to you daily.

(View our Privacy Policy)

Pinellas foster kids needn't fly solo

Bob Dillinger, Pinellas-Pasco public defender.

Bob Dillinger, Pinellas-Pasco public defender.

It's just past 10 a.m. and Courtroom 12 is filling up.

Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Judge Ray Ulmer waits to hear cases of juveniles facing charges from shoplifting to drug possession.

Lanky teenagers with peach fuzz slump down in wooden benches. Some have dressed for the occasion in roomy button-downs, while others preferred baggy jeans and dingy high-tops.

Most have an adult by their side. Some are with grandmas, others are sandwiched between mom and dad.

But for the countless foster children who cycle through, it's often a solo endeavor.

Pinellas-Pasco public defender Bob Dillinger has set out to change that with the Crossover, a pilot program that pairs foster children with public defenders who handle not only their criminal cases, but also matters involving their family situation.

Last week, Crossover attorney Steve Nelson handled the case of a 16-year-old who has been on probation since April for drug possession. In the last few months the teen, who was removed from his parent's home months ago, has stayed out of trouble.

He hoped the judge would remove him from his probation.

"I've told you over and over, you've had a lot of people try to help you and it looks like the most important person who can help you is — that's you," the judge tells the teen before agreeing to release him from probation.

Having a Crossover attorney can often mean the difference between a foster child getting a second chance or not.

Between 80 and 90 percent of the offenses foster kids commit are related to their troubled home life, Dillinger said.

"They push somebody in a foster care home, they act out because they feel they're being abused or not being treated right," he said. "And they end up with delinquency charges."

Before Crossover, public defenders, like Nelson, didn't have access to the foster care records of the children they represented in the criminal system. As a result, it was hard for judges to connect the dots when determining a youth's punishment. Foster children were often charged as adults, which meant more severe sentencing for charges that stayed on their records permanently.

Before becoming a Crossover attorney, Nelson represented youths charged as adults.

"It's very sad when you see someone in that situation," Nelson said. "This was an opportunity to stop that from happening."

Circuit Judge Irene Sullivan, who hears both juvenile crime and foster-care-status cases for Pinellas and Pasco, noted the program's benefits.

"It's been great because you see them going into foster care, being removed from their homes and the abuse they suffer," she said. "And then when you see them in delinquency court you have a clear understanding of how they got there and why they're so angry."

"It doesn't make it right what they do," Sullivan said. "But you have a more global understanding of them."

More than one-third of children who enter the program have been in foster care for more than five years.

The majority age out of the system, rather than get adopted.

Currently, three Crossover attorneys operate in Pinellas and one in Pasco. Each has about 40 cases apiece. Assistant public defenders are paid their normal salary to defend Crossover cases, which are funded from the public defender office's $13-million budget.

Dillinger anticipates the program will save money in the long run.

"When people age out of foster care, traditionally about 25 percent end up homeless, and a large percent end up in jail or prison," he said. "We're trying to break that cycle by intervening now."

When a foster child is taken out of their home, they are assigned caseworkers and a Guardian ad Litem to represent the child's "best interest" when it comes to where they will live.

But their opinions may not match what the child wants. Crossover attorneys step in to make those desires known. For older foster children, it can be empowering.

Crossover attorneys also can provide the encouragement the teens need to do better.

"You're taking debate," beams Nelson as he looks at the report card of the teenager released from probation last week.

The teen tells Nelson he has a job at a grocery store and is focused on his plans for after high school.

Nelson often finds himself melding the roles of legal representation, cheerleader and friend. "I think anybody, if they feel like somebody cares about them, is going to think before they mess up," he said.

And when they do mess up?

"I am right there telling them how I'm ticked off," he said. "But I also tell them, 'I'm still going to be there — just like a parent would be.'"

Nicole Hutcheson can be reached at [email protected] or (727)893-8828.


The mission

The Crossover Children's Program provides representation to juveniles whose cases "crossover' into both the dependency and delinquency divisions within the Unified Family Court of the 6th Judicial Circuit. Crossover child clients are provided comprehensive representation by the same attorney before the same judge on both their delinquency and dependency cases.

By the numbers


Program founded


Currently in the program

15 to 18

Average age


Pending felony cases

represented by Crossover attorneys


Pending misdemeanor cases represented by

Crossover attorneys

Pinellas foster kids needn't fly solo 11/22/08 [Last modified: Saturday, November 22, 2008 3:30am]
Photo reprints | Article reprints


Join the discussion: Click to view comments, add yours

  1. Bucs-Bills roundtable: Deonte Thompson's late catch spelled 'instant disaster' for Bucs


    ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. — Adam Humphries' fumble led to the Bills' game-winning field goal in Tampa Bay's 30-27 loss Sunday at Buffalo. But the Bills' first play after the Bucs finally took the lead was almost as deadly.

    The Buffalo Bills' Deonte Thompson (10) catches a pass in front of Bucs cornerback Brent Grimes (24) during the first half. [AP photo]
  2. Bucs-Bills: Instant analysis from the Bucs' 30-27 loss


    ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. -- Here's the Tampa Bay Times' Bucs coverage team's instant analysis from the Bucs' 30-27 loss at Buffalo:


    Buffalo Bills outside linebacker Matt Milano (58) intercepts a Jameis Winston (3) pass intended for tight end Cameron Brate (84) during the first half. [LOREN ELLIOTT   |   Times]
  3. Bucs overcome 11-point deficit, then allow game to slip away, 30-27, to Bills


    ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. — In less than a minute, a hard-fought win — and perhaps much more — slipped away from the Bucs, who gave up 10 points in the final four minutes and lost to the Bills, …

    Buffalo Bills quarterback Tyrod Taylor (5) tries to turn the corner as Bucs outside linebacker Lavonte David (54) forces him out of bounds during the first half. [LOREN ELLIOTT   |   Times]
  4. Rep. Wilson accuses White House chief of staff of 'character assassination,' calls for apology


    WASHINGTON - Rep. Frederica S. Wilson, D-Fla., on Sunday called White House chief of staff John F. Kelly "a puppet of the president" and said he should apologize for having made false claims about her while defending President Donald Trump's military condolence calls.

    Rep. Frederica Wilson, D-Fla., talks to reporters, Wednesday, Oct. 18, 2017, in Miami Gardens, Fla. (AP Photo/Alan Diaz) FLAD103
  5. Metal engine cover piece breaks off jet, falls from sky in Clearwater


    CLEARWATER — A piece of metal broke off a jet leaving St. Pete-Clearwater International Airport Sunday morning, but the aircraft turned around and landed safely about 8:40 a.m., according to investigators.