HILLSBOROUGH COUNTY, Fla. — Restoring and rebuilding our community's child welfare system has been the topic of conversation for years in the Tampa Bay region.
At the end of 2021, the Florida Department of Children and Families announced it would no longer keep Eckerd Connects as the lead agency across Pinellas, Pasco and Hillsborough counties.
It came after the Pinellas Sheriff launched an investigation into unsupervised kids sleeping in Eckerd offices because there was nowhere for them to go.
Children's Network, based in Fort Myers, will now be tasked with monitoring roughly 3,000 kids in the Hillsborough County foster care system who need, at the minimum, protection and safety.
CEO of Children's Network of Southwest Florida Nadereh Salim will be the lead on creating a whole new culture in a broken system.
"We came in with our eyes wide open. We knew it was a big challenge," Salim said.
Since March, Salim said she's been making trips to Hillsborough County to start to lay the foundation and build the infrastructure ahead of the official July 1 start. Children's Network's first priority is recruiting and retaining staff and foster parents.
Eventually, Hillsborough County will become its own chapter of Children's Network with its own CEO and board of directors.
10 Tampa Bay's Liz Crawford recently talked with foster parents in the county who are on the verge of quitting. They wanted to remain anonymous out of fear of losing their certification.
They described a familiar scenario — absent case managers who are burnt out and overworked. But it was the specifics that stand out — a little girl with a rotten tooth who can't get the court approval to visit a dentist, children sleeping in offices or cars when there are no beds available and one foster parent who traded the Hillsborough County system for the Pinellas County system because of how bad things had gotten.
"There are between 50 and 60 children who don’t have a place, a permanent place to go in the foster care system every night in Hillsborough right now," Robin Rosenberg said, the deputy director with Florida’s Children First, a statewide advocacy organization focused on the rights of children under the care of the state.
Salim says she's aware of the circumstances and she's heard the pleas of foster parents, staff, court representatives and birth families. She's already increased salaries for case workers and decreased the workload to address staff retention.
"That has really started to pay dividends even in this short amount of time, some folks had left, they’re coming back now because they see the wages are decent," Salim said.
The state legislature allotted more money in the 2022 budget to the child welfare system. Pinellas, Pasco and Hillsborough counties are seeing much of that as new agencies work to rebuild the foster systems left by Eckerd Connects.
10 Tampa Bay reached out to the Department of Children and Families about the allegations and asked specifically what the department did to help neglected children in the Tampa Bay region after the criminal investigation was launched into Eckerd Connects.
We still haven't gotten a response to our questions, but a spokesperson said to reach out to the Children's Network of Southwest Florida.