Pinellas sheriff blasts foster agency, but his office removed children at Florida’s highest rate

Hillsborough and Pinellas took more children away from their parents than any other Florida counties this past year. Sheriff Bob Gualtieri says investigators act in the best interest of the child.
Pinellas Sheriff Bob Gualtieri announced on Nov. 4 that his office launched a criminal investigation into Eckerd Connects Community Alternatives, the agency that runs foster care in Pinellas and Pasco counties. The nonprofit lost its state contract to provide child welfare services in Pinellas and Pasco counties and will be out by year's end.
Pinellas Sheriff Bob Gualtieri announced on Nov. 4 that his office launched a criminal investigation into Eckerd Connects Community Alternatives, the agency that runs foster care in Pinellas and Pasco counties. The nonprofit lost its state contract to provide child welfare services in Pinellas and Pasco counties and will be out by year's end. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]
Published Dec. 21, 2021|Updated Dec. 21, 2021

Pinellas Sheriff Bob Gualtieri in November announced a criminal investigation into Eckerd Connects after a child was injured and another overdosed at an unlicensed Largo office where foster children that the agency could not place slept in “deplorable conditions.”

His reports of those incidents are likely why the state decided not to renew the Clearwater nonprofit’s $80 million contract for Pinellas and Pasco counties.

But some child welfare experts — while not defending Eckerd Connect’s performance are questioning whether the Sheriff’s Office played a part in overburdening the county’s foster care system.

Pinellas child protective investigators removed 774 children from parents and guardians over a 12-month period through September. That’s the second-most in the state and almost 400 more than Miami-Dade County, home to roughly 1.7 million more people than Pinellas.

The Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office removal rate of 8.3 children for every 100 investigations was the highest in Florida. Statewide, the average rate was 5 in 100.

Across Tampa Bay, Hillsborough County also has struggled to find foster homes for all the children it takes from parents. It placed 1,022 children into care, the most in Florida over the same 12-month period. Eckerd Connects leaders repeatedly said that state funds were insufficient, given the number of children in care in both counties.

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

Pinellas and Hillsborough are among the seven Florida counties where child protective investigators — a role performed by civilians — are trained and supervised by a sheriff’s office rather than the Florida Department of Children and Families. Critics have long questioned whether those investigators are more prone to remove children in borderline cases when they could have remained home with regular monitoring and additional social services.

Most children are removed because of domestic violence, substance abuse or mental health problems, with poverty as a significant contributing cause, said Robin Rosenberg, deputy director of Florida’s Children First, an advocacy organization. The high intake of children in Hillsborough and Pinellas suggests that investigators do not trust that agencies providing monitoring and social services will keep children safe, she said.

That failure is particularly frustrating in a region where millions are spent on child abuse prevention programs, Rosenberg said. In Pinellas, for example, the Juvenile Welfare Board will spend $28 million this year on programs dealing with mental health, substance abuse and domestic violence, among other issues.

Rosenberg said about 70 percent of kids are removed for neglect, not abuse, and many of those children could safely stay in their homes with support services and frequent monitoring.

“Their parents are not criminals, they’re people with problems,” she said. “We’re taking way too many kids from both sides of the Bay.”

The result is that case managers struggle with heavy caseloads and a shortage of beds. Children end up staying in foster care longer. Placing children in an already stressed system can be just as damaging as leaving them at home, Rosenberg said.

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Related: Pinellas Sheriff launches criminal investigation into Eckerd Connects

Gualtieri defended his agency’s removal record, which he said follows the Florida Department of Children and Families’ framework for investigations “to a T.”

Removal rates have been part of “an age-old discussion here in Pinellas,” he said. In fact, he said, Eckerd Connects had asked investigators to stop removing so many kids, because it couldn’t handle the volume.

”I told them, ‘We’re not doing that,’ ” he said. “At the end of the day, we will always make decisions in the best interest of the child.”

Gualtieri attributed his county’s high removal rate, in part, to inadequate social services. That also affects recidivism, he said, meaning families may have contact with the foster care system multiple times if they don’t get effective help. Data shows that Pinellas consistently has a higher rate of recurrence than the state average.

Child protective investigators face a tough choice on an almost daily basis. Removing a child from their family invariably causes trauma. That emotional damage must be weighed against the risk if they are left in a home where abuse or neglect is present.

The stakes, if they get it wrong, are high.

The Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office was criticized in a 2019 state report into the death of 2-year-old Jordan Belliveau, who police said was killed by his mother, Charisse Stinson. Child protective investigators “failed to identify the active danger threats occurring within the household that were significant, immediate and clearly observable,” while investigating the latest of several reports of domestic violence between the parents. Stinson, 24, pleaded guilty last year and was sentenced to 50 years in prison.

Related: Eckerd Connects loses child welfare contract in Pinellas, Pasco
Recent accidents and incidents reported from this Eckerd Connects office in Largo raised alarms about the level of care and supervision for children staying there.
Recent accidents and incidents reported from this Eckerd Connects office in Largo raised alarms about the level of care and supervision for children staying there. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]

The decisions made by his investigators go through several levels of review, Gualtieri said. Investigators consult with supervisors, then with state-contracted lawyers, who determine whether there are sufficient legal grounds to remove the child. That decision then goes before a judge.

Gualtieri doesn’t believe investigators at sheriffs’ offices remove more children out of fear that the agency will be blamed if a child they leave with parents is later harmed.

”We do not operate in CYA mode,” he said, using an acronym meaning “cover your ass.” “The last thing we want to do is remove a child from their parents or their caregivers where they feel most safe and where there’s an opportunity for them to be safe.”

Over the past year, his agency has added layers of oversight to keep more children with their families when they can, he said. And Pinellas child welfare providers have a program called Family Works that offers intensive, at-home case management with the goal of avoiding removal.

Pinellas’ removal rate has been the subject of discussion in community meetings involving Family Support Services of North Florida, the agency chosen by the state to take over from Eckerd Connects in Pinellas and Pasco on Jan. 1.

Chief executive officer Jenn Petion said that the removal rate “does need fixing” and that officials from the Sheriff’s Office had said the county needs more robust and reliable social services.

“I think they want to reduce removals more than anybody,” Petion said.

Officials with the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office said they follow the same Florida law that applies to all child protective investigators. They link the county’s high intake of foster children to several factors, including the number of reports to the state’s abuse hotline, a higher number of substance abuse reports and a higher birth rate. Children under a year old make up about 20 percent of removals.

Hillsborough this year investigated more than 5,600 reports of substance abuse, which accounted for almost half of all cases where children were removed.

“We make every effort to keep families together when it is safe for the child to remain in the home,” the Sheriff’s Office said in a statement.

Still, an analysis of removal rates since January 2020 by Robert Latham, associate director of the Children & Youth Law Clinic at the University of Miami, showed that the seven counties where a sheriff’s office conducts investigations averaged a removal rate of 6.5 percent. The rate in counties where the state does the investigations was 4.9.

“For a large county, that could mean a few hundred children more each year are removed,” Latham said.

Caught in the crosshairs are parents and guardians who feel their children were taken from them unjustly, and who face a steep path to getting them back.

In 2016, Johnnie Baxcajay told police the father of two of her eight children choked her and threw her against a wall at a hotel in Pinellas Park, according to the man’s arrest report. He then took their baby in his arms and wouldn’t give him back, the report said.

Child protective investigators put three of her young children into foster care, she said. Although she was the victim in the domestic violence case, Baxcajay said, they told her that she had failed to protect her kids. She had a fourth child in 2019 who also was removed.

After trying to get her kids back by following a case plan of parenting classes, drug screenings and counseling, she said, she gave up her parental rights and moved out of state. The case had started to affect her relationship with her four older children from a previous marriage.

”Everything that I did was overlooked,” said Baxcajay, 32.

The Times cannot verify Baxcajay’s account because child welfare records are confidential.

Related: Nowhere to call home: Thousands of foster children move so much they risk psychological harm

In the past three years, the Broward County Sheriff’s Office has greatly reduced how many children it removes and has been touted by experts as an example that others should follow.

In 2016, the county was placed under control of a state commission because it had too many children languishing in foster care. It had removed an average of 93 children per month over a three-year period.

In an unusual step, then-Broward Sheriff Scott Israel hired former Department of Children and Families deputy regional director Kim Gorsuch to run his child protective division. In Pinellas and Hillsborough, that position is handled by officers at the rank of major or captain.

Gorsuch found that investigators were too often equating poverty with neglect, they didn’t understand addiction and might remove a child because one household member was using drugs even when another relative in the home could care for the child.

She also found that Black children were disproportionately being removed from two high-poverty ZIP codes.

When investigators told her they were trying to keep children safe, she posed a simple question: Are Broward kids really more unsafe than kids in the rest of Florida?

She brought in Casey Family Programs to train investigators. They learned to not focus only on the parents’ failings, but to look at strengths, such as nearby family and friends who could provide support. There was also extensive training on recognizing racial bias when assessing parents.

By 2019, the average number of children being removed had fallen to 42 per month. Its current removal rate of 4.4 per 100 alleged victims is well below the state average.

After a career in child welfare, Gorsuch found a different mindset in a sheriff’s office, she said.

“Sheriff’s offices are more risk-averse, and they have tended to have higher removal rates over the years,” she said. “I think it’s that whole culture of not wanting anything bad to happen.”