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‘It’s a new day’ for the area’s foster system

Mark Parker

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

When Family Support Services (FSS) became the lead agency for Pinellas and Pasco Counties’ child welfare system this year, the organization’s leadership knew they faced many challenges.

The Florida Department of Children and Families terminated its contract with Eckerd Connects, the agency in charge of finding homes for local kids, after the Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office (PCSO) launched an investigation into the organization. The long-time but much-embattled provider of foster and childcare services reportedly forced children to sleep on cots and under desks at its administrative office in Largo – without clean clothes or hot meals.

While based in Jacksonville, Jenn Petion, president and CEO of FSS, said she watched the crisis unfold in Pinellas for years.

“We recognized coming into the community that there were a lot of challenges,” said Petion. “There were a lot of broken relationships and things that needed to be mended.

“But I wouldn’t call it daunting because we really felt like we’ve had the community support all along the way.”

After becoming the area’s lead foster agency on Jan. 1, FSS identified four focus areas that Petion knew would require immediate and long-term strategies to address but would immediately spur significant change.

Those areas are workforce stability, placement capacity, reducing home removals and ensuring that kids exiting the agency’s purview find forever families.

“And really, the first one that we had to focus on was workforce stability,” said Petion. “Because having the right workers in the field are the critical piece to accomplishing all of the other goals.”

Petion said that just nine of 30 case manager positions were filled when FSS took over for Eckerd.

FSS, said Petion, was forced to work quickly and aggressively to fill those positions, which she said was not even an adequate number to manage the number of children in the system in the first place.

Six months after taking over, FSS filled those positions while increasing the number of case managers to 40.

Through community partnerships, Petion said FSS is already reducing the number of children entering the foster system through home removals and increasing the number that exit into permanent homes.

“But it’s going to be a combination of both immediate and system builds, really over the next two years, to see the kind of change that we believe is necessary and that we think is possible,” she added.

When the PCSO launched its investigation into Eckerd on Nov. 4, 2021, the agency reportedly kept 60-70 kids on a “night-to-night” status, meaning they moved around on a nightly basis without a regular place to stay.

She said many kids could and should have exited the program for reunification with parents, adoption or other permanent solutions. However, they could not make it through the process because “the system just got overloaded.”

That is why FSS has put such a strong emphasis on exiting children to permanency.

“We’ve now had – for the last three months – more kids exit the system than have come in,” said Petion. “And we know that is a needed marker for us to keep the system moving in the right direction to the right size.”

She added that on “day one,” the organization knew there were not enough placements to meet the area’s needs.

Petion said FSS needs two things to solve that problem: family foster homes willing to step up and provide temporary, healing placements for a child and an enhanced capacity to work with kids who have experienced the most acute levels of trauma. She said those children need residential, therapeutic-based programs to provide critical stabilization.

Collaboration is a focal point for Petion, and she said that FSS is aggressively working to achieve both goals through community partnerships.

Petion said that FSS is known for its focus on keeping children with families whenever safely possible. That shift, she said, began in 2006 when Duval County saw over 2,000 kids stuck in its foster care system. She called that a crisis situation, similar to Pinellas and Pasco.

Over two years, she said FSS built “a very strong front-end service array” that allowed children to remain in their homes while their caregivers underwent treatment and services.

“Through that, we were able to reduce the number of kids in the foster care system by more than half – and maintain those numbers,” said Petion. “And so, that’s what we’re looking to do with our partners in Pinellas and Pasco Counties as well.

“We recognize that the trauma that happens when a child is removed from the home oftentimes can be just as significant, if not more, than the original trauma that brought them to our attention.”

Petion said that FSS remains committed to changing the culture of the foster care system in an area hungry for a change in leadership. Her focus is on building and repairing relationships with community partners, team members, and, most importantly, the children and families the agency serves.

FSS, said Petion, does not treat its contracted colleagues like vendors or sub-recipients. Instead, she said they are true partners in a highly collaborative process whose input is vital to the program’s success.

“I think that’s one thing that we’ve heard resoundingly from both contracted and other system stakeholders,” added Petion. “That they feel like they have a voice in the system now and really appreciate the collaboration that we’re fostering.”

While based in the Jacksonville area, the new contract represents a homecoming of sorts for Petion. She grew up in Pinellas County, went to school in St. Petersburg and her mother still lives in the area.

Petion said she enjoys reconnecting with her roots and will now split her time between Duval and Pinellas.

“Which has probably made my mother happier than any other career accomplishment I’ve ever had,” she added with a laugh.

Petion thanked the Legislature for enhancing funding levels for FSS, which she called “absolutely necessary” to make the types of changes needed to the area’s foster system. She also hopes any community organizations or foster families with a desire to help will reach out to her.

“It’s a new day in the child welfare system in Pinellas and Pasco County,” said Petion.

“And we want as many potential partners and particularly foster parents – who maybe were turned off by what they knew of the system before – to help us change it to what we believe it could be today.”

For more information on FSS, visit the website here.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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