TAMPA - Kelley Parris is the new saleswoman-in-chief for the Children's Board of Hillsborough County.
Parris takes over the child welfare agency Monday and is already focused on getting out in the community and talking to parents and children who are, or could be, helped by the agency.
"My hope is I can go around the county and do focus groups and look at how every area feels about what their needs are for children and families coming from them," Parris said at a Tampa Tribune editorial board meeting Friday.
Meeting with the people your agency serves is important, not only because the Children's Board's mission is to promote kids' well-being, but because the board needs to raise its profile in the community.
With a $33 million budget, the taxpayer-supported agency is usually out of the public eye unless there's trouble. That was the case last year, when longtime Executive Director Luanne Panacek was forced out after a series of missteps.
Former Tampa Mayor Pam Iorio was hired as interim director to reorganize the bloated organization. She reduced operating costs by a third and shifted that money to nonprofit child welfare organizations funded by the Children's Board. Now, 83 cents of every dollar the Children's Board raises in taxes or grants goes straight to the nonprofits. Formerly, just 72 percent of every dollar reached the kids.
Though Panacek's problems and Iorio's transformation made the news, many county residents don't know what the agency does. Both Parris and Iorio say that needs to change before 2016, when voters will be asked to reauthorize the property tax that supports the agency.
Iorio, who attended the editorial board meeting with Parris, said she thinks the referendum will succeed because most people in Hillsborough County want to help children.
"That's why they voted for it to begin with," Iorio said. "So as long as there's nothing wrong going on and the agency is well run - people just want a well-run agency. They don't want to pick up the paper and see that something's going wrong."
Parris, who was unanimously chosen by the agency's 10-member governing board from five finalists, was formerly director of Alabama's Department of Child Abuse Protection. After her appointment to the post by the Alabama governor, Parris divided the state into mental health catchment areas. Department workers talked to residents in each area to learn what programs they needed to prevent child abuse and neglect and strengthen families.
Like Iorio, Parris emphasizes measures that ensure money dispersed by the agency is actually making a difference in the lives of children and families.
"That's accountability for the taxpayers' dollars," Parris said. "It's what we did at the state level and what we'll do at the county level."
Even before Iorio took over as interim director, the Children's Board was putting in place accountability measures and making nonprofits who wanted funding compete for the money. Parris said she wants the agency to continue to focus on accountability and increasing the effectiveness of programs. The result will be more healthy, well-balanced children, she said.
The agency has almost no marketing budget beyond its website and emails. Iorio said it will be Parris' job to put a face on the agency so voters will realize its importance to the county's general health and well-being.
"What the Children's board has to do for 2016 and beyond is be able to take the tax money we invest through these partners and create stories about how that is benefiting the community," Iorio said. "It's got to come to life."
Parris said the community has to realize how the child welfare agency's work affects "bigger systems," like prisons, which cost taxpayers billions of dollars each year. Children whose parents are in prison stand a good chance of growing up without guidance and love and may follow their parents behind bars.
"When you work with re-entry with female inmates," she said, uniting them "with their children, you're working on breaking a generational cycle of incarceration."