THE NEWS SERVICE OF FLORIDA
By MARGIE MENZEL
THE CAPITAL, TALLAHASSEE (May 9, 2012) – With Hillsborough County reeling after nine children died within two years in the care of its lead child welfare agency – the most in the state – a new contractor is poised to take over on July 1.
Hopes are high that Clearwater-based Eckerd Youth Alternatives, which in January won the $65.5 million annual contract from the Florida Department of Children and Families, will better protect children in state custody than the current provider, Hillsborough Kids, Inc.
The state contracts with community-based providers like HKI and Eckerd – which already oversees child protection in Pinellas and Pasco counties – for running much of the day-to-day child welfare system.
State officials hope Eckerd does a better job of avoiding tragedies by better use of data to predict problems, and does more to keep on top of case management, which is done by another organization.
Mike Carroll, DCF’s regional director in the “Suncoast” area, said DCF has asked Eckerd, which he said has a very strong data management system, to develop the methodology to zero in on tragedies before they occur.
DCF has asked Eckerd to develop case profiles whereby the agency can identify, say, a mother under 25, with a paramour under 25 living in the home, with children under two, with the added risk factors of substance abuse and domestic violence. That could predict problems. Eckerd will be able to input those factors and pull up all applicable cases, Carroll said.
“Within that, it then gives you warning flags. ‘This is the last time this child was seen face to face…this is the last time we had a court hearing,’” he said. “Do it in real time, so somebody other than the case manager who’s working the case can look at it independently, so they can see whether in fact the case is on track.
“It may not prevent all tragedies, but what it will prevent is that when a tragedy does occur, that on top of the tragedy, we look and we say, ‘We could have done more.’”
That won’t be a problem, said Lorita Shirley, the executive director of Eckerd for Hillsborough, who calls Eckerd “a very data-driven organization.”
Since winning the contract, Eckerd has worked with DCF to review the case files for all 2,500 Hillsborough children in care. Shirley has also been hosting regular meetings with members of the community in economically strapped parts of the county, those with higher rates of children removed from their homes.
Community trust has been an issue in the past.
So far, Eckerd has made “a very good start,” said Robin Rosenberg, deputy director of the advocacy group Florida’s Children First. “Eckerd is working hard to gain the trust of the community and bring them into the system of care. They’re being very good about reaching out to all the players and community partners.”
Rosenberg said Eckerd needs a new approach to identify high-risk cases and keep the community informed.
“We need real-time, online reporting of serious injuries and deaths,” said Rosenberg. “That’s a public accountability measure.”
But the change brings uncertainty to many.
For 102 Hillsborough Kids, Inc. employees, for instance, it means layoffs – although Eckerd will hire many of them, mostly those who provide direct services.
Another expected change: more oversight of case managers.
“Part of the issue we had with HKI is that they weren’t really involved on a day-to-day basis with the work of the case management organizations,” said Carroll. “And we’ve made it clear that the [community based care organization] ought to, as manager of those contracts, be very much involved in daily operations. We figure it’s the only way you can know what’s going on.”
“We take a very hands-on approach,” said Shirley. “We’re very transparent.”
Carroll added that Hillsborough has one of the most complex child protection systems in the nation, with many layers and providers. They include the state attorney general, the county sheriff, the Guardian ad Litem program and many partner agencies, which muddies the lines of accountability.
“The strength of that is that it really is really community based, because the leadership of all those organizations lives and works right here in Hillsborough County” said Carroll. “The challenge of it is making sure that you’re working every day to cultivate those relationships.”
Shirley said she is sending out weekly communiqués to all stakeholders and keeping everyone in the loop.
Carroll, Rosenberg and Shirley all praised HKI for its work in the 10 years since the Legislature voted to outsource child protection services. Rosenberg called the agency’s response to the transition “graceful.”
“My hat’s off to them,” Carroll said. “Despite HKI’s past performance and despite their losing the contract, they’re still in this to serve kids.”
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