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For children's sake, agencies take on a challenge

Not that they need more work to do, but the Citrus County Sheriff's Office and the School District are embarking on an ambitious initiative aimed at heading off trouble in the lives of children before a crisis develops.

It is a challenging undertaking, one fraught with logistical hurdles and other problems, but one that offers a tremendous upside.

If successful, Citrus County could wind up with a model method by which the various entities that help families and children in crisis can share valuable information.

Sheriff Jeff Dawsy and superintendent David Hickey this week unveiled the Citrus County Safe Schools Interagency Team, a collection of agencies and organizations that is certain to add members as the concept takes root and blossoms. Both stressed that the idea is in its infancy and there are as many questions now as there are answers.

One of the biggest questions is, just how many Citrus children are in true crisis situations?

Dawsy said that by some estimates 60 percent to 70 percent of the children in the county's middle schools are troubled to some degree. The cooperating agencies will have to establish thresholds and criteria for what will be considered a "student of interest." A child involved in a one-time incident on a school bus, for example, may not be in the same kind of danger as someone living with an abusive adult. Important questions will need to be asked and information shared before that determination can be made.

Exchanging that information in a timely way will be the major challenge. For starters, there are many institutions, from law enforcement, the courts and the schools to the state Department of Children and Families, mental health agencies and even day-care centers that have pieces of this broad mosaic.

Factor in community groups from the Boys and Girls Clubs and Mad Dads to dozens of church youth groups, just to name a few, and it becomes apparent just how hard it will be to get everyone communicating.

Many of these organizations already work with each other, but until now, no one has tried to step back and coordinate all of the efforts.

The goal, the organizers say, is not to create a new bureaucracy or to form a superagency that will answer the needs of every child. It is much more realistic. Just getting representatives of the various departments and agencies to meet each other regularly and to understand their missions would be a good start, according to Dawsy and Hickey.

Ultimately, they hope to set up a system where information about a child who is an abusive or neglectful situation can be shared so that the underlying issues will be addressed.

Both Dawsy and Hickey said that teachers and other adults in schools often spot problems in a child's actions and behavior that signal trouble. They would like to have a way to get help early, before the situation grows into a matter for law enforcement.

The organizers are aware that there may be issues of privacy and legal liability to address, although they said last week that they have not heard any legal opinion that would prevent them from pursuing their plan.

Also, as they proceed, they must be sure that an effort is made to respect the confidentiality of the information and the privacy rights of the children and families. The plan seems to call for the wholesale sharing of personal information among a large number of organizations and people, and it will be a challenge to ensure that appropriate confidentiality is respected.

Other practical questions remain, such as who will oversee the effort? How will this information be shared in time to do any good, through a secure computer network or some instant notification process? Will these new responsibilities be added to the workloads of already overextended employees, or will new hires be necessary?

The organizers of the Safe Schools Interagency Team know that they have set a daunting task before themselves and they are being realistic about their expectations.

Dawsy said the group plans to meet once a month with an eye toward having at least a basic framework in place by the start of the next school year, possibly at a pilot school. The larger effort will then build on that humble beginning.

There is a lot of work still ahead, obviously. But if the goal as spelled out by Hickey remains clear _ prevention and intervention before a crisis develops _ then it will be well worth the effort expended.