Christopher O’Donnell - Times Staff Writer
The children are taken from their homes because parents fight or use drugs, or because of child abuse, neglect and mental illness. Others are given away by parents who admit defeat at handling teenagers.
These sad tales occur more in Hillsborough County than anywhere else in Florida.
In four of the past six years, the county has led the state in the number of children plucked from their parents or guardians.
That peaked in the 2016 fiscal year when investigators with the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office removed 1,672 children, the highest number in more than 10 years. That’s almost 450 more than Miami-Dade County, home to roughly 1.3 million more people than Hillsborough.
For some, the numbers suggest that the county at times removes children unnecessarily. Others speculate that Hillsborough’s large low-income population, scattered over urban and rural areas, makes it difficult to help with social services.
Whatever the reason, the result is an overburdened child welfare system.
Almost 40 children ended up sleeping in offices and other make-do accommodations over a three-month period this spring and summer because state contractor Eckerd Kids could not place them in foster homes.
And only 55 percent of the roughly 3,300 children in the state’s care in Hillsborough are assigned a guardian ad litem because there simply aren’t enough volunteers. Elsewhere in Florida, 80 percent of children in care are assigned a guardian.
That can often mean Hillsborough children wait longer for counseling or medication, said Tabitha Lambert, circuit director for the 13th Circuit guardian ad litem program.
It can also mean a longer spell in the child welfare system before reunification with family or a permanent adoption.
“There’s not enough foster homes,” Lambert said. “There’s not enough resources to care for the increasing number of kids that come into the system.”
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New reports of children removed because of abuse and neglect arrive every day at the Edgecomb Courthouse on Twiggs Street in downtown Tampa.
Monday’s docket in a small courtroom on the third floor brought six new cases, each awaiting a shelter hearing. All six reports involved either domestic violence or drug abuse.
Hillsborough Circuit Judge Jack Espinosa approved removal in them all.
In most counties, reports from the Florida Abuse Hotline of children at risk are investigated by staff of the care agency contracted by the Florida Department of Children and Families.
Hillsborough is one of only six counties where investigations are handled by the local sheriff’s office. The others are Broward, Manatee, Pinellas, Pasco, and Seminole.
Of those, all but Seminole removed children at a rate higher than the state average in the 2016 fiscal year. Hillsborough was the highest of those: On average, children were taken from homes in 14 of every 100 investigations. Statewide, the rate was 8 in 100.
Hillsborough’s Child Protective Investigations Division includes 75 investigators. They are not sworn deputies but take a 12-week training course and then additional on-the-job training to get certified by DCF.
Capt. Jim Bradford, deputy division commander, agrees that the county’s removal numbers are high but said only children in danger are removed.
He points to how seldom judges deny removals as proof his staff is getting it right.
In 4,173 cases since 2011, only 66 times has a judge told investigators they got it wrong. Only one removal out of 458 this calendar year was reversed.
“The last thing the Sheriff’s Office wants to do is to remove a child from his family,” Bradford said. “We go to great pains to keep that family intact.”
Juvenile dependency attorneys who represent parents note shades of gray.
There’s no question that removal is the right action in most cases, said Tampa lawyer David A. Dee. But there are borderline cases where children could have remained in the home with regular monitoring and additional social services.
The cases that cause him the most heartache are when single parents, usually mothers, are jailed for crimes not directly related to parenting, like driving with a suspended license. The state takes custody of the children unless they have relatives or friends who can take them.
In the poorest neighborhoods, some parents have no relatives or friends willing to take a child. Even the willing will not be given the child if any adult in the home has a criminal record.
“Dependency court is an economic court; most of the people have no money,” Dee said.
Tampa lawyer Norman Palumbo, whose clients include parents and grandparents, said the state faces a balancing act between keeping families intact and keeping children safe.
Right now, the emphasis leans more to keeping children safe, he said, but that means some children are unnecessarily taken away from their home, their parents and their possessions .
Once in the care of the state, they may be there for a while.
Eckerd Kids sets a goal of getting 60 percent of children returned to their families or placed permanently with foster parents within one year of removal.
Over a 12-month period ending in June, it failed to meet that goal even once and in May and June also failed to meet the state target of permanently placing 40.5 percent of children within one year.
“I think they’re playing safe. I don’t think they realize the harm they’re doing to the kids,” Palumbo said. “Even when you err on the side of caution, it’s still an error.”
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As Florida’s fourth most populous county, Hillsborough is always likely to be among the counties with the highest foster child population.
But the county has long been regarded as an outlier by child welfare professionals because the number of removals was disproportionately high, said Don Dixon, who spent 24 years working for DCF and rose to be district administrator.
Economics may be a factor. More than 23 percent of children in Hillsborough live in poverty, according to U.S. Census estimates. And Hillsborough County ranked 98th out of the nation’s 100 largest counties when it came to income mobility for poor families, a 2015 Harvard University study found.
Children of all races end up in foster care in Hillsborough. The majority this year came from east Tampa and an area west of the University of South Florida, according to reports from the Child Protective Investigations Division. But removals also occurred in rural and suburban areas such as parts of Brandon and Progress Village.
Plenty of tax dollars are spent to prevent children from meeting that fate, including about $3.22 million for Healthy Families, a program to educate and work with pregnant and new mothers for up to five years.
But participation is voluntary, and many families shy away from allowing support workers into their homes.
Hillsborough’s size and population also makes it a challenge to reach every parent.
Hospitals deliver about 17,000 children each year in the county, more babies than are born in some states.
“Hillsborough County is a complex county,” said Jane Murphy, executive director of the Healthy Start Coalition of Hillsborough County. “We’re urban; we’re rural; we’re suburban and we have all the issues that come with that.”
Dixon, the former DCF administrator, said the vast majority of removals made during his time at the agency protected at-risk children.
His best theory is that the removals are a consequence of bad behaviors, traits and choices among parents.
The county has ranked among the worse for the number of domestic violence arrests, drunken drivers, substance abuse, and even the number of people who smoke, he said.
“My speculative conclusion: Unhealthy communities produce unhealthy results,” Dixon said.