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Fort Myers agency to hire locals to run Hillsborough foster care

The agency’s CEO said the leaders who will oversee Hillsborough’s child welfare system will come from Tampa Bay.
Children's Network of Southwest Florida has offices in Cape Coral. The Florida Department of Children and Families has tabbed the Fort Myers nonprofit to run Hillsborough County's child welfare system.
Children's Network of Southwest Florida has offices in Cape Coral. The Florida Department of Children and Families has tabbed the Fort Myers nonprofit to run Hillsborough County's child welfare system. [ Children's Network of Southwest Florida ]
Published Mar. 18|Updated Mar. 18

TAMPA — Two outside agencies will run child welfare services in Tampa Bay. A Jacksonville agency now oversees Pinellas and Pasco counties. Soon a Fort Myers nonprofit will run Hillsborough County’s foster care system.

But Children’s Network of Southwest Florida CEO Nadereh Salim pledged that her organization will hire from the Tampa Bay area when it chooses a chief executive officer, chief operating officer and a board of directors to lead its Hillsborough operations.

Children's Network of Southwest Florida CEO Nadereh Salim.
Children's Network of Southwest Florida CEO Nadereh Salim. [ Children's Network of Southwest Florida ]

Salim and Department of Children and Families Secretary Shevaun Harris spoke to a group of community stakeholders on Friday morning about the imminent takeover of Hillsborough’s system.

The Children’s Network of Southwest Florida runs the child welfare system in a five-county region around Fort Myers and Naples. Salim started the meeting by immediately addressing its outsider status. She told the crowd that when she moved from Michigan to Florida to start her career in the child welfare field 38 years ago, her first stop was Tampa.

“For someone not from here,” she said, “I got a lot of hugs when I walked into the room this morning.”

Related: Fort Myers nonprofit to run Hillsborough child welfare services

Eckerd Connects, a Clearwater nonprofit, formerly ran the foster care system in Pinellas and Pasco and will soon exit Hillsborough as well.

Last year Eckerd Connects fell under criminal investigation for housing children in an unlicensed office amid “disgusting and deplorable conditions,” said Pinellas Sheriff Bob Gualtieri. The state announced that it would not renew Eckerd Connects’ contract to run the Pinellas-Pasco child welfare district. The agency then decided not to seek an extension of its Hillsborough contract, which expires on June 30.

In November, Family Support Services of North Florida, a Jacksonville foster care agency, received the $80 million contract to run child welfare in Pinellas and Pasco counties.

But no Florida provider bid on the Hillsborough contract, the state said. WestCare, a Las Vegas nonprofit, was the only bidder. State officials rejected all of its bids to run foster care in Hillsborough, Pinellas and Pasco counties.

Harris said the Children’s Network contacted state officials after the February bidding deadline and expressed interest in entering negotiations. The secretary said her agency plans to “meet aggressively” with the Fort Myers nonprofit to ensure a smooth transition when it officially takes over Hillsborough foster care.

There are more than 3,100 Hillsborough children currently under state care and supervision. It’s a foster care system that has faced several challenges in recent years, including a high number of teens, some with behavioral issues; a lack of long-term foster homes; and a shortage of case managers, who have to handle heavy caseloads.

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“We are very cognizant of the struggles that led to this place, and we trust that we’ll continue working on those issues,” Harris said.

Related: 154 kids, 1 case manager: Hillsborough’s foster care staff crisis.

The Children’s Network was chosen based on its track record, said Jess Tharpe, deputy assistant secretary for the state’s Office of Child Welfare. The agency is ranked among the top five Florida foster agencies protecting children from experiencing repeated abuse, minimizing frequent movement between homes and ensuring children do not perpetuate abuse before their 25th birthday.

Tharpe also said that the Southwest Florida region under the Children’s Network leadership has shown a 40 percent reduction in kids receiving out-of-home care.

“Our foster numbers have come down and stayed low. Don’t you want that?” Salim said. “Me too, for this community.”

Harris said another draw of the Children’s Network is that its intervention services seek to prevent children from needing to enter the foster system. The agency has an intensive family services team that works with law enforcement to help families keep their children, connecting parents with sponsors, substance use support groups and other resources, she said.

The agency will prioritize staff retention, Salim said, and will offer jobs to any current Eckerd Connects employee who wants to stay after her agency takes over. State lawmakers have said they’ll boost funding for child welfare agencies.

A person who said they were an Eckerd Connects employee asked Salim and state officials whether contractors and subtractors will be paid equally under new leadership. Another person who said they’re an employee said the current system neglects foster care workers who aren’t case managers. Both declined to identify themselves to the Tampa Bay Times.

“Thank you for staying despite the lousy pay,” Salim joked, then emphasized that fair pay is one of her priorities. “Don’t leave. We need you.”

Joshua Nwajei, who said he’s a foster parent in Tampa, asked for a racial breakdown of foster parents in Florida. He said he knows very few other Black foster parents, while an overwhelming number of foster children are Black and deserve Black homes.

Nwajei also urged the department and new lead agency to hold foster parents accountable for their quality of care.

“There are homes I wouldn’t send my worst enemy to,” he said.

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