PINELLAS COUNTY, Fla. — There are more than 2,600 children in the foster care system in Pinellas and Pasco Counties. In January, a new agency took over as the lead of the child welfare system in those two counties.
Family Support Services Suncoast took over the Pinellas and Pasco child welfare system after Florida Department of Children and Families leaders decided not to renew a contract with Clearwater-based Eckerd Connects over fears that the agency was putting children’s health and safety in jeopardy. Back in November 2021, Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri his agency was investigating after he says several children were found injured or in dangerous conditions while under that agency’s care.
Jenn Petion, the President and CEO of Family Support Services says they are working hard to earn the community’s trust. “It is a new day in child welfare in this community,” she told ABC Action News Reporter Sarah Hollenbeck.
Lauren Sullivan, the Director of Placement and Behavioral Health Services at FSS agrees. “The decisions we make will have long-lasting life impacts on these kids so it’s a great responsibility and we know we better do right by these kids,” she added.
Family Support Services leaders plan to use their model from Duval and Nassau Counties to earn the community’s trust.
“I think it’s a fair concern that folks have about child welfare. I will say that I think the proof is in the pudding,” Sullivan added.
FSS is working to construct a new building in Pinellas County that will serve as a more welcoming space to children and families. They are also working hard to recruit more social workers.
“We’ve had a real challenge. When we took over as the child welfare agency in January our in-house case management teams only had nine out of 30 case management positions filled. That’s a critical shortage and it doesn’t allow us to provide the service to children and families in need that we’d like, so we’ve been on an aggressive hunt to find qualified workers,” Petion added.
In the meantime, the agency has relocated some social workers from their Duval and Nassau offices and partnered with DCF to borrow social workers from their agency.
Family Support Services has a goal to reduce the number of children in out-of-home care in Pinellas and Pasco Counties by 30% by 2024.
“We really want to show that we are here for the long term and we’re here to make some really great impacts and changes for these kids in our community,” Sullivan elaborated.