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Jacksonville agency believes it can fix Pinellas, Pasco child welfare woes

Family Support Services of North Florida says it will focus on lowering the number of children placed in foster care.
Jenn Petion, president and chief executive officer of Family Support Services of North Florida, which is taking over child welfare services in Pinellas and Pasco counties on Jan. 1.
Jenn Petion, president and chief executive officer of Family Support Services of North Florida, which is taking over child welfare services in Pinellas and Pasco counties on Jan. 1. [ Family Support Services of North Florida ]
Published Dec. 14, 2021|Updated Dec. 15, 2021

Back in 2007, the Jacksonville region’s child welfare district had many of the same problems that now vex the foster care system in Pinellas and Pasco counties.

More than 2,100 children were living in group homes or with foster parents or relatives because investigators believed they weren’t safe at home. Case managers struggled to manage heavy caseloads and find beds for every child.

The high number of children living in out-of-home care also ate up the agency’s budget, leaving little to pay for the social services that could have kept families together.

Jacksonville’s lead agency, Family Support Services of North Florida, took action to solve those problems — and that could serve as a blueprint for when it takes over the troubled Pinellas and Pasco child welfare system in January.

Related: Eckerd Connects loses child welfare contract in Pinellas, Pasco

The agency obtained $2 million in state and national grants to set up robust social services programs to help families in Duval and Nassau counties whose children were at risk of removal because of issues like substance abuse, domestic violence and extreme poverty.

By 2009, the number of children in out-of-home care there had plummeted to below 700 and today remains below 1,000.

Family Support Services will take over the $80 million annual contract to run foster care in Pinellas and Pasco on Jan. 1. Its leader believes that same model can work here, where more than 2,600 children are currently separated from their families in what is the biggest child welfare district in Florida.

“That is the hard place a lot of agencies find themselves in,” said president and CEO Jenn Petion about Pinellas’ and Pasco’s high number of children in care. “When we were able to cut the out-of-home care population in Duval by more than 50 percent, that created a financially stable system for us.”

Family Support Services is taking over from Eckerd Connects, which learned in November that the state will not renew its contract after receiving reports from Pinellas Sheriff Bob Gualtieri that a child was injured and another overdosed while they were staying overnight in an unlicensed agency office.

Eckerd Connects is also walking away from its $87 million contract to provide child welfare services in Hillsborough County, which expires in June 2022.

For years, the Clearwater nonprofit has struggled to find long-term beds and homes for Tampa Bay teenagers in its care, who instead end up sleeping in offices.

Related: Pinellas Sheriff launches criminal investigation into Eckerd Connects

Reducing the number of children in the system’s care won’t be easy. Pinellas and Pasco ranked first and third respectively in the state for how many investigations resulted in the removal of children alleged to be the victims of abuse or neglect.

More than 1,200 children were removed from their families in the two counties from October 2020 through September 2021. Pinellas and Pasco are among seven Florida counties where child protective investigators are trained and supervised by the local sheriff’s office. In other communities, investigators work for the Florida Department of Children and Families.

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Petion said the removal rate is something that “does need fixing.” She has met with Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office officials, who she said want front-end services that can trust if they decide not to remove children and leave them at home.

Family Support Services of North Florida will take over as lead foster care agency in Pinellas and Pasco on Jan. 1. The agency will focus on lowering the number of children removed into foster care.
Family Support Services of North Florida will take over as lead foster care agency in Pinellas and Pasco on Jan. 1. The agency will focus on lowering the number of children removed into foster care. [ Family Support Services of North Florida ]

The approach means that even children considered at high risk of abuse can be left in the home — provided those families have a safety net of social services and are frequently monitored by certified case managers and others.

“If we did not provide intensive services, those children would all be candidates to be removed,” she said.

A former case manager herself, Petion said she understands the instinct to be cautious and take a child away from a potentially harmful situation. But too often, she said, the trauma children suffer by being removed from their parents is just as bad.

“So we’re all going to get comfortable with some level of risk,” she said. “Knowing that we’re able to do a lot to safely wrap services around that child, and once we know that system is in place, that is going to be strong and sound, it’s not going to feel as risky.”

Related: Jacksonville-based agency appointed to run foster care in Pinellas, Pasco

The decision by Department of Children and Families Secretary Shevaun Harris to appoint a Jacksonville agency to run foster care in Tampa Bay for the next five years raised some eyebrows. Florida’s privatized child welfare model is intended to put control of foster care in the hands of local agencies that know their community.

Roy Miller, president of Tallahassee nonprofit American Children’s Campaign, said Family Support Services may have succeeded in north Florida because it fit the model of a local agency running a small child welfare district.

That won’t be the case once it takes over the Pinellas-Pasco district, where three other agencies have struggled to keep vulnerable children safe before losing their contract. That includes Eckerd Connects, which mostly provided services to children in the juvenile justice system until it was appointed lead agency in 2008, Miller said.

“DCF’s contracting is changing the model; they’re growing larger and larger (agencies) that have fewer ties to the area,” Miller said. “Where they have changed the model, they have not met with success.”

Related: Rush to appoint foster care agency in Pinellas, Pasco could backfire, child welfare experts warn

Petion, who grew up in Pinellas and graduated from Northside Christian School, said local leaders will be asked to join her agency’s governing board to give the community more say in how foster care is run. Her agency is working hard to meet leaders of local agencies, case management organizations and other key players in the child welfare arena, such as Beth Houghton, executive director of the Juvenile Welfare Board.

Houghton’s agency has committed to spend $28 million of its $92 million budget on programs and services aimed at preventing child abuse and neglect. That includes programs where nurses and social workers make home visits to families with children and expectant mothers, and a program that provides support for family members who agree to care for children rather than see them placed in foster care.

“While it will be a significant challenge to stand up the new child welfare lead agency on such a short time frame, the Juvenile Welfare Board and our partners remain committed to providing our support,” Houghton said in an email.

New lead foster agencies typically have months to plan an orderly transition. Petion’s was given one month.

The agency’s first step will be to try to reduce caseloads by finding permanent homes for several hundred children who are close to exiting the foster care system either through reunification or adoption but are just lacking final paperwork, Petion said. That should take the pressure off case managers and allow them to focus on their more difficult cases.

Her agency is also in the process of hiring case managers, supervisors and other staffers, many of whom were already working in the system and are familiar with the children in their caseload. Eckerd Connects sent more than 230 notices to employees on Nov. 2 informing them that their employment will be terminated on Dec. 31. It was not known how many may end up working for Family Support Services.

Petion said taking the contract was not about expanding her agency, but instead about answering a call for help. She is proud that even though the state recognizes that her agency is underfunded, it has never asked for so-called risk-pool money, a fund intended to help agencies that run up a shortfall or face an influx of foster kids.

“We were completely willing to just be a partner from afar and share our model that we believe works in preserving families, strong collaboration, innovation,” she said. “But when the community really wanted us to play a bigger role, we said we’d do our due diligence and see what we could do.”

Correction: An earlier version of this story misspelled Duval County.

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