The corrective action plan that Eckerd Connects has sent to the state has — on paper, at least — the essentials needed to improve Hillsborough County's foster care system. By addressing the needs of both foster children and the foster system itself, Eckerd is working in a comprehensive way to address emotional needs and gaps in services that combine to make life even harder for many of the most troubled children. The state and Eckerd will need to work in close collaboration to ensure the reforms are working and tweak the plan as needed to get the right results.
The long-running failure to find longer-term homes for older foster children in Hillsborough prompted the state to seek a new approach by Eckerd Connects. The move followed two reviews of Eckerd Connects in the wake of reports that foster children were left unattended or placed in inappropriate settings. Eckerd Connects, a nonprofit that acts as the county's lead child welfare provider, had already moved to adopt several recommendations made by experts on an outside review team. The report it sent Friday to the state Department of Children and Families was the latest in a fast series of responses to address gaps in the system. As part of its plan, Eckerd Connects created a 24/7 crisis response team, partnered with another provider to offer therapeutic help to children who have refused to be placed and worked to expand the capacity of group homes and to better train foster parents on handling difficult children.
Taken together, these steps will bring more attention to the plight of individual children. As is often the case, older children resist placement out of fatigue with a system that treats them as a number. By assigning them a mentor and legal representative, Eckerd Connects hopes to give them a greater sense of stability. That should reduce the cycle of children refusing placement late at night or being forced to spend hours in a caseworker's car or another inappropriate setting.
The agency is also looking at ways to try to keep children from entering the system altogether. The state review found that children in Hillsborough are more likely to be removed from their parents' care than are children statewide, and that once in foster care, too many are still stuck in the system a year later. Eckerd Connects will convene a review team in difficult cases to assess the safety of leaving a child at home, and will explore reaching out to family members, relatives and friends to develop a plan for caring for some children. It also will target the recruitment of foster parents, focusing on those willing to take an older child. While Hillsborough may have tilted too far in some cases toward removing children from their parents, it will be equally important not to over-correct and leave children in dangerous situations in the name of keeping families together at virtually any cost.
These are all constructive steps. The child's safety must be the paramount concern, but this approach will bring more voices to the table, and it should give Eckerd Connects and the state a better idea of what's needed in a high-volume area such as Hillsborough. Eckerd Connects now must get feedback and have its plan vetted by partner child welfare agencies by July 15. It needs to track the reforms and change the course as needed, and the state needs to ensure that its private-sector contractors get the resources they need. All sides will have to work together to break a logjam in care that has existed in Hillsborough for far too long.