LUTZ — Almost 40 Hillsborough foster children are expected to ride out Hurricane Irma at Joshua House, a group foster home in Lutz.
On Friday, they were joined by another 14 foster kids, five staffers, three family members, a dog and two cats — evacuees from another foster home in Brevard County.
As Hurricane Irma moves closer to a direct strike on Florida, group foster homes across the state are weighing whether they should ride out the storm or evacuate. For officials who have to make that decision, it's a complex calculation.
Children's Home Society of Florida, which runs 10 group homes, has already evacuated foster homes in Miami and Brevard counties.
With Miami seemingly in the cross hairs of Irma, there was no choice but to evacuate residents of the group home there. Children and staffers were relocated to a group home in Palm Beach County that is farther inland.
It was a tougher call to evacuate its Brevard group home, which is farther north from where Irma is anticipated to make landfall but is on low-lying land and close to the coast.
It is not yet known if any more group homes will have to be evacuated.
"We do a lot of communication across the state, assessing and evaluating the weather," said Children's Home Society executive director Eliza McCall-Horne. "We are looking at other areas and watching the storms."
The weather is not the only factor the group has to consider. Finding accommodations for children and staff members is a challenge in a state where the foster care system is already overburdened. There is also concern that evacuating will create more anxiety for children already affected by child abuse, neglect or from being removed from their parents.
"You're dealing with kids who have already been through so much trauma and grief and loss and then have this unexpected hurricane and them not understanding what is happening," McCall-Horne said. "We have to stay attuned to their needs."
The majority of children in foster care stay with foster parents or relatives. This week, judges in most child welfare circuits issued temporary orders allowing foster parents to take children out of state if they are evacuating.
About 27 foster children are likely to stay throughout Irma at the Lake Magdalene group foster home in Carrollwood, Hillsborough County officials said.
Staffers at Joshua House began preparing for storms months ago after forecasters predicted a busy hurricane season, said DeDe Grundel, executive director of the Friends of the Joshua House Foundation. As part of their licensing requirements, group homes must submit a comprehensive disaster plan to the Florida Department of Children and Families.
The 11-acre campus, which houses about 36 children, was built with its own generators and a 2,500 gallon water reserve tank.
This past week, the Joshua House staff stocked up with additional food and 35 cases of water to ride out the storm. But they have also filled vehicles with gas in case they have to flee.
Most of the Brevard evacuees who arrived Friday will be housed in the Publix House, a 12-bed building that was recently renovated. Airbeds also are being provided.
The focus for the staff has been to keep children calm and not let anxiety build. Therapists are available for children who feel stressed.
"Sometimes it's best to keep the TVs off and not let the barrage from the news keep hitting them," Grundel said.
Contact Christopher O'Donnell at [email protected] or (813) 226-3446. Follow @codonnell_Times.