Sometimes a good housecleaning makes all the difference. That’s what happened a year ago following the deaths of nine children being watched by the state-funded child welfare agency, Hillsborough Kids Inc.
The state ended its contract with Hillsborough Kids and hired Eckerd Community Alternatives, a nonprofit already providing child welfare services in Pinellas and Pasco counties.
Since taking charge in Hillsborough in July 2012, Eckerd has created a way to identify those children most at risk, increased the number of foster homes, moved more children into adoptive homes, introduced a second layer of case review, and rolled out technological efficiencies to enhance communication.
Most importantly, just one child died over the past year in Hillsborough while the agency had an open case. Compare that to the rest of the state, where as many as 20 children have died since April after being brought to the state’s attention, prompting House Speaker Will Weatherford to call on lawmakers to look into the deaths when they meet next spring.
The dramatic results in Hillsborough indicate its revamped child-welfare system may offer lessons for the rest of the state. The changes also illustrate the value of a privatized system, where the state can move quickly to replace operations that aren’t working.
“Eckerd brought the technology to flag cases, shorten reviews, and get immediate feedback,” veteran state Department of Children and Families Regional Director Mike Carroll told The Tampa Tribune editorial board this week.
Carroll lived through the dark days that led to the decision to award the $65 million contract to Eckerd.
At the time, no other region in the state recorded as many deaths over that two-year period.
Under the leadership of Lorita Shirley, the executive director in Hillsborough, Eckerd took an aggressive approach from the start. It created a task force to review 1,500 child dependency cases, leading to a better understanding of the system’s gaps and deficiencies. It held community meetings and established weekly conference calls that track the data reflecting the welfare of the 3,000 children and families that the agency is responsible for monitoring on any given day.
Shirley says there were certain high-risk indicators that weren’t being flagged, such as the parents’ ages, the presence of a boyfriend in the home, evidence of substance abuse, or previous legal troubles. Children in those high-risk environments are now given immediate attention.
Being responsible for the county’s most vulnerable children is a daunting task. No agency can be expected to prevent the death of every child who dies at the hands of abusive adults. And Eckerd’s challenge will be to maintain the focus and energy it’s displayed in taking over the operation. But Eckerd appears to have the tools and the leadership needed to open a new chapter in child welfare in Hillsborough, one that may well change child-protection practices throughout the state.