TAMPA — Nadereh Salim knows she is inheriting one of Florida’s most troubled and challenging foster care districts.
Salim is chief executive officer of the Children’s Network of Southwest Florida, which took over the reins of foster care in Hillsborough County on Friday. The nonprofit, which runs child welfare in a five-county region centered around Fort Myers and Naples, was chosen by the Florida Department of Children and Families to replace Eckerd Connects.
After a decade in charge, the Clearwater nonprofit’s contract expired June 30 as it decided not to seek renewal from the state. It’s unclear if it would have been allowed to continue.
Eckerd Connects was placed on a corrective action plan in 2018 because it routinely housed kids overnight in unlicensed offices in Hillsborough. It also lost its contract to run foster care in Pinellas and Pasco counties at the end of December after the state learned the Pinellas County sheriff was launching a criminal investigation into the agency’s housing of children in an unlicensed office on Ulmerton Road amid “disgusting and deplorable” conditions.
The contract for Hillsborough is worth $90 million this year. The priorities for Children’s Network are to reduce the number of children in care, hire and retain more case managers and kick off an advertising blitz to find new foster parents, Salim said.
Hillsborough had more than 2,500 children in foster homes, group care or with relatives as of the end of May. That’s the highest in the state and almost 900 more children than the next highest county, Pinellas. Child protective investigators also removed more children in Hillsborough than any other county in Florida this year, state data shows. An average of 76 children per month were taken into care or placed with relatives through May.
The constant influx of new children meant Eckerd Connects often struggled to find enough foster beds and left case managers overburdened.
Salim is optimistic that some of the approaches that were successful in the Fort Myers child welfare district will make a difference in Hillsborough.
That includes setting up an intensive family services team to work with parents identified by child protective investigators as being at risk of losing their children. The team will provide families with social services such as sponsors, substance abuse support groups and other resources, she said.
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The team includes former addicts who have undergone training and certification to work with parents facing the same problems they once had.
“They can relate to these families and reach them in places a regular case manager cannot because of their experiences,” Salim said.
The goal is to ensure that there is sufficient supervision and support around a family so investigators feel confident that the child can remain in the home.
The agency is planning a $250,000 media campaign to recruit new foster parents with advertisements planned for TV, radio, and social media. The goal is to prevent children from being on so-called night-to-night placements, where kids either sleep in offices or spend the night in foster beds before moving to other accommodations.
To reduce caseloads, Salim is increasing pay for case managers and other front-line staffers to improve retention and attract new people to the field. Starting pay for the position has been raised by 25% — from about $38,000 to $47,500. Pay for family support workers was bumped from $14 per hour to $18.
More than 170 former Eckerd Connects employees have been hired either by Children’s Network or Camelot, one of the nonprofits providing case mangers, Salim said.
“We are still struggling with high caseloads, but hope this will send some professionals to our agency,” she said.
Children’s Network also took steps to allay concerns about benefits. It negotiated with a health insurance provider to lower premiums by $100 a month from the amount originally quoted to transferring employees. The nonprofit also agreed to make up paid time off to workers with less than three years of service.
“We have made every good faith effort to absorb and minimize the uncertainty and challenges and stress that goes with transitioning,” Salim said.
Children’s Network plans to make its operations in Hillsborough autonomous from the Fort Myers group. It has formed Children’s Network of Hillsborough, LLC, and the group will have its own governing board and chief executive officer, Salim said.
A report produced by Hillsborough’s Community Alliance, a group of child welfare stakeholders, identified several issues they want the incoming agency to address, including a lack of empathy and support for birth parents, and better support for foster parents. There was also concern that the high number of children means case managers are stressed because they end up working long shifts.
Lower caseloads and a better work-life balance for those front-line employees would improve their ability to help families reunite with their children, said Kelley Parris, a member of the Alliance and executive director of the Children’s Board of Hillsborough County, a public agency that awards tax dollars to groups that support children and families.
“That is one of the most important things we can do to calm this system down and reward those who have worked tirelessly through this chaos,” Parris said.
Help for struggling families is available by calling the Crisis Center of Tampa Bay at 211.