Pinellas County now has more children in foster care than Miami-Dade and Broward, Florida’s two most populous counties.
Roughly 1,570 Pinellas children were either placed with relatives or in foster homes as of Nov. 30, an increase of more than 500 from 2015. The county — which ranks just sixth in population overall — now has more children in foster care than any other except Hillsborough.
The increase also means Pinellas and Pasco counties — administered as a single child-welfare region — rank first in the number of foster children among the state’s 20 regions, overtaking Hillsborough. Almost 900 children are in foster care in Pasco, up almost 200 over the past four years.
The added burden on Pinellas’s foster care system is beginning to show.
Only 28 percent of Pinellas children removed from home over a 12-month period through September 2019 were reunited with parents or found a permanent place to live. Twelve months is the target set by the state for reuniting families. In 2015, when there were fewer children in care, Pinellas hit that target 55 percent of the time, Florida Department of Children and Families data shows.
Eckerd Connects, the lead foster care agency for Pinellas-Pasco, has also struggled to hire and retain case managers, increasing the workload for those who remain.
Only about 60 percent of case manager positions in Pinellas are filled, compared to 90 percent in Pasco, said Chris Card, Eckerd Connects’ chief of community-based care.
The turnover rate among case managers across Pinellas-Pasco exceeded 100 percent in 2019. Part of this stems from Eckerd’s decision in August to fire subcontractor Directions for Living from a $4.6 million case management contract.
The strain on the system shows in cases such as the death of 2-year-old Jordan Belliveau. In the months leading up to Jordan’s death in Largo, a state review found, child welfare agencies missed warning signs, failed to make home visits and said nothing when the mother lied in court about completing mandatory counseling classes to get her son back.
Child protective investigators also failed to identify the threats Jordan faced as the risk of domestic violence involving his parents increased.
Card said the biggest challenge facing Pinellas is money.
Florida’s child welfare funding formula does not award more money to communities when they experience a surge in the number of children in foster care. That has hurt Pinellas-Pasco, where the number of children in care has risen by about 25 percent over the past three years.
Eckerd receives about $48 million per year from the state to run foster care operations in Pinellas-Pasco. Even though it has fewer children in care, Miami-Dade receives $77 million.
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Eckerd ran an $8 million deficit in Pinellas-Pasco over the past year, Card said.
It has asked its subcontract agencies to stick to an agreed budget, but some additional expenses can’t be avoided. When children are removed from homes outside of regular work hours, it requires more overtime pay. And many children entering foster care need expensive therapy and counseling.
Card estimates that Pinellas-Pasco needs about $20 million more to make ends meet.
“It’s very different when you’re basically borrowing money versus having it to invest,” Card said. “If I can’t get more money into that system, it’s never going to come out of the woods.”
After years of lobbying by Eckerd, state lawmakers this year may be ready to award funding based on the number of children served. A bill filed by Sen. Wilton Simpson, R-Trilby, would overhaul the funding formula while introducing new accountability measures. Simpson is in line to be Senate President after the November general election.
Florida’s most populous county, Miami-Dade, has 1.7 million more people than Pinellas but almost 300 fewer children staying with relatives or in foster homes.
Card said it’s hard to understand why. But he sees some significant differences in how child welfare is run in the two counties. For example, investigations into allegations of abuse or neglect in Miami are conducted by the state Department of Children and Families. In Pinellas and Pasco, the investigations are done by the Sheriff’s Office.
State data shows that the removal rate for children in Pinellas-Pasco is only slightly above the state average. About six children are removed out of every 100 alleged victims compared to five statewide.
As recently as 2015, Miami-Dade was Florida’s biggest foster care region with about 2,200 children requiring out-of-home care. Since then, the county has reduced the number by about 1,000 children. Its average removal rate over the past year was 3.3.
That was achieved by focusing on prevention programs that identify families at risk of having children removed and providing them help, said Esther Jacobo, director of the Citrus Family Care Network, which took over as Miami-Dade’s lead foster agency in July.
The region offers traditional prevention programs like parenting and anger management classes, but also uses public Medicaid money to pay for certain therapies and its behavioral health network to pay for others.
Another program identifies children in schools who may be experiencing crises. The money comes from an award by state lawmakers following the Parkland shootings in neighboring Broward County, intended to help schools deal with student behavioral health issues. Partnerships with juvenile detention agencies and the state attorney’s office are also focused on finding families in need of help.
“It’s really important for communities who are struggling to be able to leverage the funding from different sources,” Jacobo said. “I think we in Miami-Dade have been very successful at doing that.”
Hillsborough, which is also run by Eckerd, is attempting a similar approach.
A new $3 million program funded by the Hillsborough County Commission will pay for an assessment center on Falkenburg Road staffed by case managers and behavioral specialists who will help families considered at risk of losing their children. In some cases, children who must be removed will be housed at a residential center for two weeks while parents receive counseling and behavioral therapy.
Card said he hopes to meet with Beth Houghton, the new executive director of the Juvenile Welfare Board of Pinellas County, to discuss whether similar ventures can be launched in the county.
The number of Pinellas children spending more than a year in foster care is worrying, said Mariela Ollsen, the director of the Guardian ad Litem program in Pinellas and Pasco counties. The program provides attorneys and volunteers who advocate for the interests of children in foster care.
Ollsen said the rise in the number of children in care is due in part to substance abuse among families, including opioid and meth addiction. She would like to see Pinellas-Pasco get additional funding and more services aimed at keeping families together.
“I’m extremely worried," Ollsen said. “There is no benefit that I can think of to a child or family lingering in the child welfare system."