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Q&A: How to fix the foster care system in Pinellas and Pasco

Family Support Services of North Florida CEO Jenn Petion talks foster care, child removal and how to keep children safe.
Jenn Petion is president and chief executive officer of Family Support Services of North Florida.
Jenn Petion is president and chief executive officer of Family Support Services of North Florida. [ Family Support Services of North Florida ]
Published Mar. 21

LARGO — Jenn Petion might just have the toughest job in Florida’s child welfare system.

As CEO of Family Support Services of North Florida, she was already responsible for running foster care in the Jacksonville area, where the agency supervises roughly 1,500 children.

Then in November, the Florida Department of Children and Families asked her nonprofit if it would consider providing foster care services in Pinellas and Pasco counties, which combined makes up Florida’s biggest child welfare district. Together, the two counties have roughly 3,500 children either in foster care or under state supervision.

Oh, and the kicker. Her agency would have to be ready to take over in little more than a month after the state decided not to renew the contract with the old provider, Eckerd Connects, having learned that it was the target of a criminal investigation by the Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office.

The Tampa Bay Times sat down with Petion over tea to talk about how to fix a troubled child welfare system and how to hire and retain case managers during the ‘Great Resignation.’ This conversation has been edited for clarity and brevity.

• • •

How have the first two months in charge gone? What have you learned?

January was when we really started getting deeper into the state of the cases and the system of care, and really better understanding the complexities of how these communities work. Pinellas and Pasco have a lot in common, but they’re also very different in a lot of ways as well. So getting the nuance of how things are done (In Pinellas) and which partners operate here versus how things are done in Pasco and what partners are up there.

I think we have learned a lot over the first 45 days. In a lot of ways, things were in a more challenged state than we even realized from the outside looking in. Our biggest priority focus has been stabilizing the frontline workforce because we know our case management team is the most critical team to accomplishing all of the big ideas and dreams that we have.

We have a lot of really great plans, a lot of initiatives that we’re ready to kickstart. But we’ve got to have the strong case management staff to be able to carry those out.

Related: Jacksonville-based agency appointed to run foster care in Pinellas, Pasco
• • •
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Turnover of staff managers is a problem statewide. What have you done to address that?

One of the first things we did was elevate that starting salary for case managers (from about $37,000 to $45,000.)

(We’re) implementing other strategies that should help as well: An on-call pay structure so that if you are expected to be available for additional time, there’s compensation for that.

Candidly, we know, statewide there are hiring challenges. We’re a new entity in this community, people are still learning who we are. And we’re up against the reputation of what the system has been and what it has meant to be a caseworker. It was a daunting job.

The team that we have that did come through the transition with us are starting to see hope, again, that things can be different, that they will be different. And that there is a possibility there is a future where there is work life balance. This is a job that feels more manageable.

We had a hiring event (on Feb 2.) We invited all of our partners to participate with us because this is not just about us and our needs, but the system of parents’ needs. I believe we hired eight or nine people that day, one of our case management partners hired nine people that day. So it was a great start.

• • •

Have you been able to make any changes or improvements already?

Placements has been a huge challenge in this community for years. We’ve already seen very significant areas where we’re getting kids placed, in some cases, we’re getting all kids placed by 5 p.m. That didn’t happen. It had become normal and expected that there were just not going to be enough (foster homes and other placements) available. And we’ve really tried to dig in and leave no stone unturned. And we’re seeing it make a difference.

We’re excited to be meeting with some partner organizations, some faith partners in different groups that are saying, ‘We can help you find some more families.’ That will take some time. But also, as we work to exit kids from the system that are ready for permanency, that will free up capacity as well. We’ve identified several organizations that have what we call “concrete supports” available both to foster families, relatives, and birth parents that really weren’t being regularly utilized.

DCF has shared one of their adoption experts to help us go through cases and determine what steps need to be taken to get that family finalized. We’ve gotten a transportation contract to help relieve some of those burdens (on case managers). Everything will come into better alignment, once we’ve got fully staffed and we’ve exited some of the kids that really are ready for permanency.

An architect's rendering of a new addition to the office building on Ulmerton Road used by Family Support Services of North Florida. The nonprofit will move into the new structure once it's complete.
An architect's rendering of a new addition to the office building on Ulmerton Road used by Family Support Services of North Florida. The nonprofit will move into the new structure once it's complete. [ Family Support Services of North Florida ]
• • •

Pinellas has had one of the highest removal rates of any county in Florida. How can you keep more families together?

I think the sheriff and the providers would tell you there’s not enough front-end services that have been leveraged for the need they have. Once the hotline call has been made, an investigator has gone out and determined mom or dad have active substance abuse and it is putting the care of that child at risk, now we need more intensive services.

We see this frequently in our Duval-Nassau community. A family has active substance abuse, but grandma’s willing to move in and be a safety monitor for them. We’re able to get mom or dad into intensive treatment quickly. And we’re monitoring their interactions and working with them. And that child didn’t have to be placed in foster care while mom and dad work through those issues.

We are hopeful that in the next couple of months, we will achieve a stable staffing pattern, which will allow us to really make gains on kids who are ready to be exited (from foster care) while also working to build out that frontline support to keep children from coming into the system that truly don’t need to if we can provide high intensity services on the front end.

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