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New foster care agency in Pasco and Pinellas counties says 'it's a new day in child welfare'

An adult and child holding hands outside
Chinnapong - stock.adobe.com
There are more than 2,600 kids in the child welfare system in Pasco and Pinellas Counties.

Family Support Services says staff shortages have posed challenges during the transition, but the agency is optimistic about improving child welfare in the community.

The agency that took over child welfare services in Pasco and Pinellas counties in January says it has made a lot of progress but has a lot more work to do.

Family Support Services has operated for years in Duval and Nassau Counties, and expanded to the Tampa Bay region after the Department of Children and Families chose not to renew its contract with Eckerd Connects last year.

The Pinellas Sheriff is investigating Eckerd for housing kids in “deplorable” conditions like offices because staff had nowhere else to put them.

Family Support Services Suncoast CEO Jenn Petion says her team is working to expand placement capacity by recruiting more extended family members to take care of kids and find more foster homes.

Jenn Petion, CEO, Family Support Services stands in front of a building smiling.
Family Support Services
Jenn Petion is CEO of Family Support Services in Pasco and Pinellas counties. She said the agency is looking for "top talent" to work with children and families in the foster system.

More than 2,600 kids are currently in Pasco and Pinellas' child welfare system. Petion says her agency is also working to find permanent homes for some.

“Right now what you have is a system that's really overloaded or clogged, if you will, and we've got to get some of those kids exited to permanency who are ready to be exited to permanency,” she said.

The agency also places a strong focus on family preservation to keep kids out of foster care in the first place. Petion said developing a family preservation program in North Florida was a huge help when that region faced problems with foster care in the early 2000’s.

“Making sure that kids who don’t need to come into care can be safely and effectively served within the community,” Petion said.

Another critical challenge, she said, has been staff. Eckerd’s troubled past contributed to existing staff shortages in the area's child welfare industry.

When Family Support Services took over at the start of this year, Petion says the in-house case management team had nine of 30 positions filled. The agency tapped social workers from other counties to help and is recruiting more talent.

“The system has been very taxed, and so really being able to tell folks, ‘It is a new day for child welfare in Pasco and Pinellas,’ – It's not going to get where we want it to be overnight, but it’s a great time to jump in and be part of the solution,” said Petion.

The agency is also raising the starting salary for case managers from the high $30,000’s, which is what Petion said staff earned when they took over, up to $45,000 a year.

“We are continually assessing whether that is even the right number,” she said. “We want to recruit top talent and we want people to view child welfare as a professional position and an opportunity for advancement and being able to have a livelihood."

"…We know what a stable system looks like and for case managers to have work-life balance, but that hasn’t always been the case here, so we’re enthusiastic about filling critical roles.”

In the three months that Family Support Services has been in the region, Petion said they have spent a lot of time listening to community partners through focus groups, large forums and private meetings to learn more about the challenges the system is facing.

The agency is developing an action plan to improve care for families.

I cover health care for WUSF and the statewide journalism collaborative Health News Florida. I’m passionate about highlighting community efforts to improve the quality of care in our state and make it more accessible to all Floridians. I’m also committed to holding those in power accountable when they fail to prioritize the health needs of the people they serve.