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A home away from home: Hillsborough plans foster care village at Lake Magdalene

Residential houses, a school and professional foster parents are part of a $17 million plan to transform an aging Carrollwood group home.

TAMPA — Since the 1940s, abused, abandoned and neglected teens have found refuge at Lake Magdalene, a group home owned and run by Hillsborough County.

But its spartan breeze-block buildings and institutional feel have dated badly in an era where foster care best practices state that children fare better in a home with a family.

It doesn’t help that the facility in Carrollwood also serves children at risk of ending up in juvenile detention.

It’s an everyday sight for foster kids to see other children remove their shoes and be scanned with an electronic wand before entering the cafeteria they share. Until two weeks ago, foster kids were banned from having cell phones, an attempt to keep a level playing field with children for whom phones are considered contraband.

“It’s very cold and unwelcoming and institutionalized,” said Ramin Kouzehkanani, the county’s chief innovation officer. “It’s not conducive to long-term care and feeling welcome.”

That’s why the county last week unveiled an ambitious $17 million plan to turn the 23-acre campus into a foster-care village with homes, a school and professional foster parents who live there permanently. Officials hope the village will be an option for a small population of older teens who have refused placements and therapy and often end up sleeping in offices.

It would also provide accommodation for children taken out of the home temporarily while parents receive a barrage of counseling and behavioral therapy under a new program launched by the county that is intended to lower the number of children taken into foster care.

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

The first step for the village project will be a $500,000 renovation of three cottages. The buildings will be renovated to be more homey. Required group home safety fixtures like sprinkler systems, illuminated exit signs and fire panels will be made more discreet.

The homes will be run by professional foster parents who can provide 24/7 care for a small number of foster kids. The parents will be trained in dealing with children with severe trauma. A team of counselors and case managers will be available day or night to help the parents should a crisis occur, said Chris Card, chief of community-based care for Eckerd Connects, the lead foster care agency in Hillsborough.

Commissioners have little choice but to revamp Lake Magdalene. Federal subsidies for children staying in expensive group homes will be limited to just 14 days once that provision of the Family First Prevention Services Act goes into effect in Florida in 2021. The average stay at Lake Magdalene is about 18 months.

The act prioritizes keeping children out of foster care by making more money available for in-home counseling and parenting classes for families at risk of having children removed. There is also some funding for professional foster parents.

The cost of the village would be equivalent to about the county’s total spending on children’s services over two years, Kouzehkanani said. He expects that it will help the county qualify for more federal funding.

The county’s continued investment in foster care comes as Hillsborough has led the state in the number of children removed from their family for the past three years.

County officials will be hoping the village plan fares better than an ill-fated attempt to take in troubled foster kids in 2017. Two cottages at Lake Magdalene were leased to Eckerd Connects, which hired Truecore Behavioral Solutions to care for difficult-to-place teens.

The initiative was quietly shelved after less than a month because the teens were blamed for a rash of break-ins in nearby homes.

Sandy Murman

“The neighborhoods surrounding Lake Magdalene will love this,” County Commissioner Sandy Murman said about the village. “They watch us like a hawk. There have been problems - I’m not going to sugar coat it — big problems.”

Commissioners also decided unanimously last week to name the village after Murman, in recognition of her efforts leading the Blue Ribbon Commission on Child Safety that worked with stakeholders to come up with the plan for the village and the county’s prevention program.