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Officials are counting on new center to ease Hillsborough’s foster care crisis

Child welfare workers in the new $3 million program will work to keep children with their families and out of foster care.

TAMPA — For child protective investigators, it’s an easy decision to remove children when there is clear evidence of domestic violence or heroin or cocaine use in the home.

But what about a child whose physical and mental development seems delayed? Or whose mother can’t afford to stock the refrigerator?

Investigators with the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office face similar gray-area decisions about the safety of children every day. The agency removes more children than any other county in Florida.

Beginning Tuesday, it will be the job of 15 child welfare workers based at a former Sheriff’s Office training facility in east Hillsborough to change that.

The newly renovated office, which shares a building with a Sheriff’s DNA facility on Falkenburg Road, will be the epicenter of a new $3 million program set up by the county to reduce the number of children taken into foster care. Inside, case managers and behavioral specialists will help families considered at risk of losing their children, and help investigators follow up on reports made to the state’s abuse hotline.

In borderline cases, the center will be able to quickly provide counseling, behavioral therapy, mental health assessments and other support to try and get families back on track. Relatives, teachers, sports coaches, friends or anyone who can help a family or single parent will be tapped to provide day-to-day support and encouragement.

The final decision on whether a child stays will remain with the investigator.

“We want them to have the confidence to leave the kids in the home," said Ramin Kouzehkanani, the county’s chief innovation officer.

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

The most radical part of Hillsborough’s plan is to temporarily remove some children for about two weeks while parents receive a barrage of counseling and behavioral therapy. The kids would likely be housed at Lake Magdalene — a county owned group foster home — but would not be considered under the watch of the state, meaning reunification could happen more quickly.

“You’re not healing the family in two weeks but you’re making sure they have the resources to heal,” Kouzehkanani said.

A children's play area at the new Hillsborough County Family Prevention Services Collaboration Center. [ MARTHA ASENCIO-RHINE | Times ]

A kid-friendly tree mural will greet families arriving at the center. The county paid about $70,000 to decorate and equip the facility, which is made up of offices and conference rooms. A play area with soft toys, books and games will occupy children when workers need to have difficult conversations with their parents.

The county’s willingness to spend tax dollars on the state-funded foster care system reflects long-held concerns about the level of care in Hillsborough’s overburdened system.

Roughly 1,435 Hillsborough children were removed from their parents in 2018, the third straight year the county has led the state in removals. The county’s removal rate of 7.62 per 100 reports is well above the state average of 4.8.

Lead foster care agency Eckerd Connects continually struggles to find permanent foster placements, especially for older children. The state has warned the agency to fix the problem or risk losing its $83 million yearly contract.

The county has contracted with Eckerd Connects to manage the new center, which will be headed up by Heather Cazzola, director of diversion and prevention. Most of the $3 million, however, will go to other agencies, including the Children’s Home Network, Gracepoint and Gulf Coast Jewish Family and Community Services, which will provide most of the staff.

Heather Cazzola, director of diversion and prevention for Eckerd Connects. [ MARTHA ASENCIO-RHINE | Times ]

Hillsborough is one of only six counties where investigations are handled by the local sheriff’s office. The others are Broward, Manatee, Pinellas, Pasco, and Seminole counties.

Investigators are not sworn deputies. They must complete a 12-week training course and then additional on-the-job training to get certified by the state Department of Children and Families.

There is no easy decision. Remove a child and they will likely spend a year or more in foster care. But it’s even worse if harm comes to a child they leave in a home.

The county and the Sheriff’s Office have yet to decide what calls will qualify for intervention by center staff. For its first few weeks, the center will focus on identifying families before they are the subject of a child protective investigation. That will include reviewing eviction notices, calls to the 211 crisis line and calls to the abuse hotline that did not meet the criteria for an investigation.

A blue-ribbon committee formed by Commissioner Sandy Murman worked on Hillsborough’s plan for more than three years. DCF Secretary Chad Poppell has designated the new venture as an innovation project that, if successful, could be rolled out statewide.

County officials also say it puts the county more in line with the Family First Prevention Services Act. The 2018 federal law prioritizes keeping children out of foster care and limits funding of group foster homes, which critics say are often used by agencies as a stop-gap accommodation when a foster family cannot be found.

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“We’ll have less kids coming into care by focusing on the front end of the system and preventing removals when we can safely,” Murman said. “It’s getting more services to families that need help before they get to crisis.”