Safeguarding children in foster care is tough enough under the best conditions. But a new provider has its work cut out in taking over the foster care system in Hillsborough County. Whether the Children’s Network of Southwest Florida succeeds remains to be seen, but it’s taken some good early steps in shoring up expectations.
The Children’s Network, which runs child welfare in the Fort Myers-Naples region, took over the Hillsborough program this month after being selected by the Florida Department of Children and Families to replace Eckerd Connects. Eckerd ended 10 years of service in June when it chose not to seek a contract renewal, and its departure followed a rocky history. Eckerd 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. The change offers a fresh start for foster services in Hillsborough, and it will test the willingness of the state and local nonprofits to strengthen the safety net for the most vulnerable children.
To that end, Children’s Network has made some key changes already. As the Tampa Bay Times’ Christopher O’Donnell reported, the agency has created 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 and other resources.
The group is planning a $250,000 media campaign to recruit new foster parents, with the goal of keeping children from being on so-called night-to-night placements, where they either sleep in offices or spend the night in foster beds before moving to other accommodations. To reduce caseloads, the agency is increasing pay for case managers and other staffers, and improving benefits, which should help to recruit and retain front-line workers. These steps are essential for a county with the highest number of children in foster care (2,500) in the state. And they send an overdue message about this important job and the value this community places on the people who provide it.
Child protective investigators removed more children in Hillsborough than any other county in Florida this year, state data shows, with an average of 76 children per month taken into care or placed with relatives. That demand requires a foster care system that’s up to the job. Luckily, Children’s Network has solid local partners. A report produced by Hillsborough’s Community Alliance, a group of child welfare stakeholders, identified several issues they want the new provider to address, including greater support for birth parents and foster parents alike. The alliance should remain engaged and serve as a ready local resource.
Children’s Network is starting off with the right approach, and it’s encouraging the Hillsborough affiliate will have its own governing board. That should help the agency address Hillsborough’s outsized needs and fashion a system that better stabilizes the living environment for troubled families.
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