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  1. Opinion

Editorial: Get at root of crisis in Hillsborough foster care

Hillsborough County children taken into care recently had to stay at this office building off Fowler Avenue in Tampa because there weren’t enough foster homes for them.
Hillsborough County children taken into care recently had to stay at this office building off Fowler Avenue in Tampa because there weren’t enough foster homes for them.
Published Aug. 11, 2016

The pitiful cycle tends to play out in Hillsborough County more than anywhere else in the state: At-risk children are removed from unsafe homes, only to face the hardships of a clogged and unresponsive foster system. The issue isn't whether children in dangerous environments should be removed; rather, it's how to better target resources so that families can remain healthier and intact. Hillsborough leaders should come up with a strategy for reaching these families in a more timely and effective way.

As the Tampa Bay Times' Christopher O'Donnell reported last week, Hillsborough has led the state in four of the past six years in the number of children being plucked from their parents or guardians. That peaked in the past year, when investigators from the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office removed 1,672 children, the highest figure in more than a decade and roughly a third more than Miami-Dade, a county with nearly double the population.

The figures are sure to give ammunition to antigovernment conservatives, many of whom like to frame the child protection process as antifamily. But that overlooks the facts and misses the point. Even though it leads the state, Hillsborough removes children in only 14 of every 100 abuse investigations. The vast majority of cases do not result in children being taken from home. And in more than 4,000 cases since 2011, a judge has found that investigators got it wrong only 66 times. Only one removal out of 458 during this calendar year has been reversed. The Sheriff's Office does a good job, and each case presents a unique situation that must be judged on its own. And there can be no doubt that authorities must err on the side of what's best for a child.

The real problem is that the county's child protection system is not equipped to handle what comes its way. Because there are not enough volunteers, only 55 percent of the 3,300 children in state care in Hillsborough have a guardian assigned. Elsewhere in Florida, 80 percent of children are assigned a guardian. That can mean longer waits in Hillsborough for health care or social services and longer time in the foster system, leaving these children without the sense of stability they need. The Times reported earlier this year that dozens of children were forced to sleep in offices and other make-do accommodations this spring and summer because the county lacked an inventory of foster homes.

Juvenile welfare lawyers and longtime advocates cite a deeper problem: Hillsborough's rangy size and high poverty levels help create especially troublesome home environments. Nearly one-fourth of Hillsborough children live in poverty; nearly two-thirds of county schoolchildren qualify for free or reduced-price lunch. The county's cities and suburbs are crowded, income mobility for the poor is among the lowest of all big counties nationwide and Hillsborough has high numbers of arrests for domestic violence, drunken driving, substance abuse and other bad behaviors.

As one longtime state juvenile welfare official put it: "Unhealthy communities produce unhealthy results."

The community, though, has an opportunity to get ahead of this problem. Many agencies are already working to strengthen the social fabric. Tampa General Hospital and the University of South Florida talk of improving public health. The city of Tampa has launched new initiatives to strengthen relations between the police and predominantly black neighborhoods. The Hillsborough County School District is taking a more holistic approach to serving children in at-risk families. Hillsborough's public defender has advocated a number of reforms to curb the prison recidivism rate. If these agencies work closer together, the community can strengthen the family unit and bring more resources to bear on those who are still struggling.

A more robust bus system in the county might keep a single parent from being arrested for driving with a suspended license — and thus prevent the disruption of another family. Small acts can have large consequences. Local governments, volunteers and the private sector should work closely in addressing the root causes of the foster crisis and think creatively about how the community can get ahead of this lingering problem.

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