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Foster Service adds nearly 100 local jobs

Mark Parker



Jenn Petion (right), president and CEO of Family Support Services, and Carlos Cruze, chief of staff, attended a ribbon-cutting ceremony for the Family Justice Center by CASA Pinellas in St. Petersburg Wednesday. Photo by Mark Parker.

Family Support Services has significantly bolstered its workforce, increased pay and boosted partner funding by nearly $9 million in its first nine months as Pinellas County’s new child welfare system.

The organization took over for Eckerd Connects in January after the Florida Department of Children and Families (FDCF) terminated its contract with the embattled organization. That move followed a Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office criminal investigation into Eckerd’s operations, after reports surfaced that officials forced children to sleep on cots and under desks at its administrative office in Largo – without clean clothes and hot meals. The criminal investigation is now “inactive.”

Jacksonville-based Family Support Services (FSS) also provides foster and childcare services in Pasco County, and it immediately established priority focus areas for its Suncoast branch. Those include family preservation, placement stability and permanency. However, Jenn Petion, president and CEO of FSS, said the organization could only accomplish those goals through the fourth priority – workforce capacity.

“I think the system had been so challenged, for so long, that they had a very difficult time recruiting and retaining employees,” said Petion. “There just was not enough human resources to do the work that needed to be done.”

Despite the recent boost to its local workforce, Jenn Petion said she hopes to hire more people. Photo provided.

When FSS took over for Eckerd in January, it had 197 employees serving the area from its Largo office. Officials announced Friday that just nine months later, it now has 290 local employees and is looking to continue boosting that number.

While based in Jacksonville, the new contract represented a homecoming of sorts for Petion. She grew up in Pinellas, went to school in St. Petersburg and her mother still lives in the area. Most of the nearly 100 new employees work in the county, and Petion noted that Suncoast’s 290 total staff members are more than the 150 operating out of her organization’s headquarters.

“We have been very intentional about adding critical positions and ensuring we have the right capacity for a system of this size,” she said. “And we know that recruiting team members is the first part of the equation.”

FSS, Petion explained, is also changing the local child welfare system’s culture and values, which she believes will keep new and old hires on board and thriving in their roles. Additionally, following a comprehensive analysis, the organization has significantly increased starting pay and other salaries to remain competitive in the job market.

Petion announced that in recent months, FSS made a $2.35 million investment in its local personnel capacity.

After adjusting positions to more efficiently manage caseloads and enhancing compensation, the organization’s leadership turned its attention to boosting support for its local contracted partners. Youth and Family Alternatives received $3.9 million this year for case management, and FSS gave Lutheran Services Florida another $3.9 million for case management and family preservation.

Gulf Coast Jewish Family and Community Services received $363,231 to preserve families – a key focus for Petion and FSS – and FSS dedicated $724,215 to Camelot Independent Living for case management.

State lawmakers appropriated the increased funding, which FSS receives through its FDCF contract. Petion said the organization was “very open” with its legislative partners about the resources it needs to rehabilitate the area’s child welfare system.

She added that Speaker of the House Chris Sprowls and Senate President Wilton Simpson were local champions with a vested interest in the organization’s efforts to build a strong preservation program. FSS needs that, Petion said, to successfully exit children to permanent homes.

“To be able to add positions and enhance the compensation to a more professional level really means a lot,” said Petion. “Because I know how hard they work, and it can be such a rewarding field. But for a long time in this community, child welfare was viewed in such a negative light.”

Despite rapidly increasing its local workforce, Petion said a few positions remain open. She realizes some people were hesitant to join the child welfare system due to previous concerns and negative connotations, and now works feverishly to change that perception.

Petion also announced that FSS is developing a 12-month Leadership Institute to better equip case managers with those skills following promotions. She called it another tool in the belt to help raise the next generation of leaders, with the ultimate goal of identifying “what is in the best interest of the child.”

She encouraged those with a previous interest to apply and reiterated that “it’s a new day” for the Pinellas and Pasco County welfare system. FSS, Petion added, is also turning its focus to recruiting more foster family homes.

While she stresses removing children is a last resort for the organization, she wants to ensure FSS has “the right” homes available when case managers cannot find a family member to assume the responsibility.

“We know that children who are able to stay at home with their families while they receive services – if we can do that safely – that is the best outcome,” said Petion.

“And we also know that the system makes terrible parents, and no child should grow up in foster care.”

For more information on Family Support Services of Pinellas and Pasco Counties, visit the website here.

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