Fort Myers agency to hire local people to run foster homes in Hillsborough

TAMPA – Two outside agencies will operate child welfare services in Tampa Bay. A Jacksonville agency now oversees Pinellas and Pasco counties. Hillsborough County’s nursing system will soon be operated by a Fort Myers nonprofit.

But Nadereh Salim, CEO of the Children’s Network of Southwest Florida, vowed that her organization will hire staff from the Tampa Bay area when it selects a chief executive officer, chief operating officer and board of directors to lead its Hillsborough operations.

Nadereh Salim, CEO of the Children’s Network of Southwest Florida. [ Children’s Network of Southwest Florida ]

Salim and Department for Children and Families Secretary Shevaun Harris spoke to a group of community stakeholders on Friday morning about the upcoming takeover of Hillsborough’s system.

The Children’s Network of Southwest Florida operates the child welfare system in a five-county region around Fort Myers and Naples. Salim started the meeting by immediately addressing his outsider status. She told the crowd her first stop was Tampa when she moved to Florida from Michigan 38 years ago to begin her career in childcare.

“For someone who’s not local,” she said, “I got a lot of hugs when I walked into the room this morning.”

Related: Fort Myers non-profit organization to operate Hillsborough’s child welfare services

Eckerd Connects, a Clearwater non-profit organization, formerly operated the care system in Pinellas and Pasco and will soon be leaving Hillsborough as well.

Last year, Eckerd Connects was criminally investigated for placing children in an unlicensed office in “disgusting and deplorable conditions,” said Pinella’s Sheriff Bob Gualtieri. The state announced it would not renew Eckerd Connects’ contract to operate the Pinellas-Pasco Children’s Services District. The agency then decided not to seek an extension to her Hillsborough contract, which expires on June 30.

In November, Family Support Services of North Florida, a Jacksonville foster care facility, won the $80 million contract to provide child welfare services in Pinellas and Pasco counties.

But no Florida vendor has bid on the Hillsborough contract, the state said. WestCare, a non-profit organization based in Las Vegas, was the sole bidder. State officials turned down all offers to run foster homes in Hillsborough, Pinellas and Pasco counties.

Harris said the Children’s Network reached out to state officials after the February application deadline and expressed an interest in beginning negotiations. The secretary said her agency plans to meet “aggressively” with the non-profit Fort Myers to ensure a smooth transition when she officially takes over foster care in Hillsborough.

There are currently more than 3,100 Hillsborough children under government care and supervision. It’s a care system that has faced several challenges in recent years, including a large population of teenagers, some with behavioral issues; a shortage of long-term care homes; and a lack of case managers to deal with high caseloads.

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“We are very aware of the struggles that led to this place and we have faith that we will continue to work on these issues,” Harris said.

Related: 154 children, 1 case manager: Hillsborough nursing staff crisis.

The Children’s Network was chosen because of its track record, said Jess Tharpe, deputy assistant secretary of the State Office of Child Welfare. The agency ranks among the top five foster care organizations in Florida that protect children from repeat abuse, minimize frequent movements between homes, and ensure children do not continue the abuse before their 25th birthday.

Tharpe also said that under the leadership of the Children’s Network, the Southwest Florida region has shown a 40 percent reduction in the number of children in out-of-home care.

“Our care numbers have come down and have stayed low. Don’t you want that?” Salim said. “Me too, for this community.”

Harris said another benefit of the Children’s Network is that its intervention services seek to prevent children from entering the care system. The agency has an intensive family services team that works with law enforcement to help families keep their children and connects parents with sponsors, drug use support groups and other resources, she said.

The agency will prioritize employee retention, Salim said, and offer jobs to any current Eckerd Connects employees who wish to stay after their agency’s acquisition. State legislators have announced plans to increase funding for child protection services.

One person who said she was an Eckerd Connects employee asked Salim and state officials if contractors and subcontractors were being paid equally under the new leadership. Another person, who said she was an employee, said the current system neglects nurses who are not case managers. Both declined to identify with it Tampa Bay Times.

“Thank you for staying despite the lousy pay,” Salim joked, before stressing that fair pay is one of her priorities. “Do not go. We need them.”

Joshua Nwajei, who said he was a foster parent in Tampa, asked for a racial breakdown of foster parents in Florida. He said he knows very few other black foster parents, while an overwhelming number of foster children are black and deserve black homes.

Nwajei also called on the department and the new lead agency to hold foster parents accountable for their quality of care.

“There are houses I wouldn’t send my worst enemy to,” he said.

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