1. Opinion

Editorial: Hillsborough builds stronger safety net

While drug abuse, mental illness and human exploitation are national problems, local agencies typically deal with the fallout. That's why a host of new initiatives in Hillsborough County are encouraging and could be a model for strengthening the safety net in communities nationwide.

The Tampa Bay Times has recently reported a number of efforts to address chronic societal problems at the local level. Government and private providers are teaming up to confront everything from substance abuse and public safety threats to the overburdened child welfare system. The goal is to try to get ahead of these problems, sparing families from being separated, exploited, put in harm's way or facing the criminal justice system. These are tough, ambitious undertakings with no guarantees, but the chance to improve lives, avoid heartache and save taxpayers' money make them well worth the effort.

About one-quarter of Hillsborough County children taken into foster care are babies, the Times' Christopher O'Donnell reported, a trend heightened in recent years by the number of infants born to mothers with substance abuse problems. Their children have a higher risk of developmental delays and other difficulties, requiring expensive treatment that often falls to the local foster care system.

Eckerd Connects, the agency that runs foster care in Hillsborough, is for the first time partnering with the Healthy Start Coalition to find and help women at risk of having their children removed into foster care. Healthy Start plans to put neonatal specialists in every hospital with a maternity ward in Hillsborough as part of a broader outreach program to women who are pregnant and who may need counseling, treatment for addiction or other services. The program is aimed beyond battling drug use, intended to help in cases of domestic violence, teen pregnancy and other issues. The goal is to get families help before they are reported to the state's abuse hotline, a prevention effort that could curb the demand on the county's overburdened foster care system.

The Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office has also launched several important initiatives. It is revamping its training program to better prepare deputies to handle people undergoing a mental health crisis. The agency's voluntary, 40-hour crisis intervention training for patrol and detention deputies is now mandatory for the entire force. Sheriff Chad Chronister said the change reflects the need for deputies to become better familiar with de-escalation tactics given the large number of calls involving people with mental health issues. The curriculum will be updated to increase the focus on veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress and drug-induced mental health episodes.

The Sheriff's Office is also investigating so-called immigration fixers, a response to complaints by Mexican laborers in east county that they had been duped and swindled by people falsely promising to resolve their immigration statuses. "Preying on the most vulnerable in our County will never be tolerated. Period," the agency tweeted in English and Spanish. Immigration rights advocates say they are encouraged the Sheriff's Office is tackling the issue, which they say is rampant.

These practical, cooperative approaches should strengthen Hillsborough's safety net.