In Foster Care, County Leads by Example and Proactively
Innovative ideas and programming will be key for Hillsborough County when it comes to the upcoming changes to the child welfare system due to the Family First Prevention Services Act, recently signed into law. The act looks to reform the child welfare system from the top down, and innovation is exactly what Hillsborough County is counting on as it moves forward at the local level.
How do you go from being the leading county in Florida in number of children removed from homes to being an innovative leader in the child welfare system? By starting at the very beginning and changing up the County's approach to the system with a focus on prevention.
Hillsborough County, in partnership with Eckerd Connects, has opened the Assessment Center for the Hillsborough County Family Prevention Services Collaborative to serve families in crisis. The center is a one-stop shop of important resources, with trained professionals who will provide and coordinate counseling, behavioral therapy, mental health assessments, and other services for children and family members.
The center gives law enforcement and case managers in the field the ability to divert children from the child welfare system and enroll them in a two-week assessment program. The concentrated services and attention is designed to identify and deal with family issues before they escalate to the point where a child has to be removed from their home. By focusing on prevention, many of the problems van be identified and resolved before they result in a child being removed.
"We will have a lot more in-home, community-based services provided to families in Hillsborough County, so they can get what they need to strengthen their families. We will be able to find ways to keep families intact and more kids safe within their own homes," said Dr. Chris Card, Chief of Community-Based Care at Eckerd Connects.
The center is seen as a pilot program for the Florida Department of Children and Families which, if successful, could be implemented throughout the state.
"This is some moment in our nation with opening up an assessment center that fits within our new federal laws," said Walter Sachs, Regional Director of Florida Department of Children and Families. "Hillsborough County is trying to get to families before they are in crisis; build and strengthen families so we don't have to remove children. We are excited for the families in Hillsborough County."
Hillsborough County spent about $70,000 to equip the center, which is part of a new $3 million program to reduce the number of children taken into foster care. The program includes participation from numerous partners, including the Florida Department of Children and Families, Eckerd Connects, the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office, the Children's Home Network, Gracepoint, and Gulf Coast Jewish Family and Community Services.
"We have taken a giant leap forward in fixing the problem. Instead of removing the children to fix the problem, our investigators now have options to fix the problem. We have changed the child welfare system," said Hillsborough County Sheriff Chad Chronister. "It's exciting for a county that leads in child removal. This community is so progressive and open minded because they want to fix this problem and I'm proud to be a part of this community. We choose to do it different here."
In the first week alone, the Assessment Center has diverted two children from going straight into the foster care system; taking the first crucial steps in implementing the County's new approach of prevention.