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  1. Hillsborough

Hillsborough County to launch $3 million program to address foster system woes

TAMPA — Roughly 1,435 Hillsborough County children were removed from their parents in 2018, the third straight year the county has led the state in taking abused and neglected children into foster care.

And the county's foster care system has struggled to cope with the constant influx of traumatized kids. Children ended up sleeping on air mattresses in offices and waiting around in gas stations because of a shortage of foster beds. Eckerd Connects, the agency that runs foster care in Hillsborough, was warned by the state last year that it must fix the system or risk losing its $77 million annual contract.

Now, Hillsborough County is set to step in and plans to spend $3 million over the next two years to reduce the number of children removed from their families and help get children who are removed out of foster care faster.

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It plans to contract with Eckerd Connects to provide case managers and behavioral specialists to accompany child protective investigators as they visit homes reported to the state's abuse hotline. The decision to remove a child will remain with the Sheriff's Office but investigators will now have expert advice on hand to make a more informed decision.

"The premise is the three-pronged approach will render a better judgment, a more augmented judgment to make that call," said Ramin Kouzehkanani, the county's chief innovation officer.

And in a radical departure from current practice, in some borderline cases children may be temporarily taken out of the home for about two weeks while parents receive a barrage of counseling and behavioral therapy so the child can be returned. That would prevent a court-ordered removal into foster care where typically only one third of families are reunited within a year.

"We've been the leader in removals of children; we want to be the leader in prevention of removals," said Commissioner Sandy Murman, who led the Blue Ribbon Commission on Child Safety that worked with stakeholders, including Eckerd Connects, to come up with the plan. "This moves us to child abuse prevention and family stability."

Florida Department of Children and Families Secretary Chad Poppell has approved the county's pilot, which the state has also designated as an innovation project. If it proves effective, it could be rolled out statewide.

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The state has a big incentive to back the plan. By 2021, Florida will have to comply with the Family First Prevention Services Act, a federal law that experts predict will "blow up" the existing foster care system.

The act prioritizes keeping children out of foster care and limits funding of group foster homes that are often used by agencies as a stop gap accommodation when a foster family cannot be found. Instead, the act makes more money available for in-home counseling and parenting classes for families at risk of having children removed.

The prevention counseling and therapy services Hillsborough is proposing would be eligible for a share of those federal dollars.

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The county's program will also use previously untapped data to identify families that might be struggling before they end up with a knock on the door from a child protective investigator. That will include eviction notices, calls to the 211 crisis line and calls to the abuse hotline that did not result in an investigation.

More effort will also go into working with hospitals to identify children born to mothers abusing both illegal drugs and prescription medicines.

"I hope that it helps us keep families together; to work with families prior to court involvement and to reunite families," said Chris Card, Eckerd Connects' chief of community based care. "We'll be the first in the state to take a big leap to get ahead of this."

County officials have set a goal of reducing child removals by 5 percent and to increase the number of children in foster care that are reunified with their parents within a year from 35 to 40 percent. It is also wants to reduce the number of children in group homes by 75 over the next two years.

The new focus on prevention has the support of Florida's Children First, an independent statewide advocacy group focused on children's rights. The group has frequently criticized Florida's foster care system for removing too many children into a system where they are often bounced from home to home, resulting in children developing trust issues and suffering from low self-esteem because they feel unwanted.

"I'm super excited that Hillsborough County is embracing the Family First act and putting its resources into helping children stay at home with their families or relatives whenever possible," said Robin Rosenberg, the group's deputy director. "The best thing we can do is create a culture that is supportive of our families and is not punitive."

Contact Christopher O'Donnell at or (813) 226-3446. Follow @codonnell_times.