Hint: It’s the
county that tears apart families at one of the highest rates in the state, and
yet has one of the worst records in the state on a key measure of child safety.
Bob Gualtieri, the
sheriff of Pinellas County, Florida (metropolitan St. Petersburg) is really upset. It seems he’s noticed something we’ve been pointing out on our Florida blog for years: Eckerd Connects, the longtime “lead agency”
responsible for what happens to foster children after they’re torn from their
homes in Pinellas and neighboring Pasco and Hillsborough Counties, has been
doing a terrible job. (Not for much longer, though. Either the state Department of Children and
Families fired Eckerd or Eckerd quit, depending on who is telling the story.)
But, back to the
sheriff, who says Eckerd did such a lousy job that he's launching a criminal investigation:
“The conditions in
which these children have been living at Eckerd’s offices, frankly, is
disgusting and deplorable," Gualtieri said. And he’s not about to accept any excuses
either! “You don’t whine about it,” he
says. “You fix it and if you can’t do it you go to the state and you say, ‘hey
look, this isn’t working and here’s why,’ … But you still do your job, and you
don’t expose kids to danger while you’re trying to fix it. You figure out a way
to make it happen."
You tell ‘em,
Sheriff! But there’s just one problem.
Bad as Eckerd is – and yes, they are awful, and yes there’s no excuse
for it – the single biggest source of the problem in Pinellas County is – the
office of the Pinellas County Sheriff. Gualtieri runs what may be the most extreme,
most fanatical family destruction agency in Florida.
It’s Sheriff Gualtieri
and his deputies who are, in effect, dumping all those Pinellas County children
onto Eckerd’s doorstep in the first place.
No, it’s not because they want to hurt kids. On the contrary, I’m sure they sincerely
believe they’re helping. But they can’t
break out of the take-the-child-and-run mentality that plagues Florida child
welfare, especially in their part of the state.
When the Sheriff
runs child protective services
In most parts of
Florida, the initial decision to tear a child from everyone s/he knows and
loves is made by workers for the state Department of Children and
Families. But in a handful of counties, sheriff’s
offices have that job. Those counties
tend to be concentrated in the Tampa Bay area, including Pinellas, Pasco,
Hillsborough and Manatee.
The people who
pushed the change, about 20 years ago were hoping for just this result – they
wanted sheriffs to tear apart more families, and the assumption was that
hard-nosed cops would be even more fanatical about it than caseworkers.
It looks like they
were at least partly right. Some
counties where DCF still runs initial investigations take away appallingly
large numbers of children. Conversely, in
Broward County, the Sheriff’s office has shown commendable restraint, taking
proportionately fewer children than most counties where DCF still is in charge. But in the other counties where sheriffs are
in charge, the take-the-child-and-run crowd has gotten what it wanted –
especially in Pinellas.
Compare Pinellas to
other large counties where sheriff’s deputies take away children – and note
that all of these figures factor in rates of child poverty in each
A child in Pinellas
County is 33 percent more likely to be taken from her or his parents than a
child in neighboring Pasco County. That
Pinellas County child is 60 percent more likely to be taken than a child in
Manatee County, twice as likely to be taken as a child in Hillsborough County, nearly
two-and-a-half times more likely to be taken away than the state average – and
more than four times more likely to be taken away than a child in Broward
County which, again, is another place where the sheriff’s office does the
In fact, were Pinellas County, Florida, a state, its rate of removal
would be the seventh highest in the entire nation.
|NCCPR calculates rates of removal by comparing Florida DCF data for entries into care for the year ending Sept. 30, 2021 (the most recent time period available) to a Census Bureau estimate of the number of children living in poverty in each county. We believe this approach is fairer than simply comparing entries to the total child population, But, for the record: If you divide entries by total child population the relative position of these counties remains the same – Pinellas still is the most extreme outlier, and the rate of removal in Broward still is lowest.|
Child removal ≠ child
Ah, but if we’re
taking away all those kids, we must be making them safer, the sheriff might
say, since the mantra in Florida for
decades, with only a brief exception, has been to falsely equate child removal
with child safety. I can imagine Sheriff
Gualtieri responding to these figures by taking perverse pride in how his
officers supposedly “err on the side of the child” and put child safety ahead
of family preservation.
This, of course,
ignores the enormous trauma to children caused by needless removal – even when
the placements are good. Recall what
happened at the Mexican border and you get the idea. How is that “erring on the side of
child”? The trauma is, of course,
compounded when, according to the very people taking away the children, the
placements are “disgusting and deplorable.”
How is that erring on the side of the child?
But also, the more you overload systems with false reports trivial
cases and needless foster care, the less likely you are to have time to find
the relatively few children in real danger.
Instead of erring on the side of the child, the Sheriff’s approach makes
all Pinellas County children less safe.
Check out the data.
The standard measure
of child safety is this: Of all the children caseworkers or sheriff’s deputies
deem to have been abused or neglected, what percent are abused or neglected
again in the next 12 months?
Here are the most recent available results for those same counties:
State average: 6.79%
In fact, there are
only six counties in the entire state, all much smaller than Pinellas, that do
worse. And note that the county with the
lowest rate of removal, Broward, had the best safety record. Bottom line: Pinellas County Sheriff’s
deputies are taking away far too many children needlessly and missing
more cases of real abuse and neglect than counties that show more restraint. How is that erring on the side of the child?
“As bad or worse”
measure of what happens to children can be found in Sherriff Gualtieri’s own
statement. He said that, under the care
and supervision of Eckerd, “The conditions are as bad or worse than the living
conditions from which the children were removed.”
Which begs the
question: If you know they’re going to be as bad or
worse off, why are you taking them away in the first place?
The statement about
“as bad or worse” is misleading in one way, though: It plays to public stereotypes about families caught in the system. It conjures up images of horror story cases
that are very serious, very real, and very, very rare. Far more common are cases in which family
poverty is confused with neglect.
Of course, Sheriff Gualtieri
might reply: Well sure, a lot of times the problem is housing, but the housing
was dangerous so what do you expect us to do about it? We’re not a housing agency. Or: We can’t very well provide childcare
subsidies so children aren’t taken on “lack of supervision” charges, can we?
Why not? As the Sheriff himself put it:
“You don’t whine
about it. … You figure out a way to make it happen."
So why can’t the
Pinellas County Sheriff’s office take some of its budget and use it for emergency
cash assistance, and rent subsidies, and housing repairs, and childcare
subsidies. Or at least follow the
example of this police officer in Kansas City, Missouri.
And where the issue
is substance use that genuinely endangers children, how about using some of that
budget to set up innovative home-based drug treatment programs – again, because
better for the children.
The extent of
We know how bad the
problem of wrongful removal is nationally thanks to the mass of studies showing that, in typical cases, children
left in their own homes do better even than comparably-maltreated children
placed in foster care. We know how bad
it is in Florida thanks to excellent stories like this from USA Today Network Florida
And we know how bad
it is in the counties where Eckerd has been the lead agency thanks to the
report of a “peer review team” DCF itself sent to Hillsborough County (metropolitan
Tampa) in 2018. As we wrote at the time:
The peer review
found that workers in Hillsborough County are so terrified of having one of
their cases land them on the front page after a tragedy that they were
illegally taking large numbers of children needlessly. According to the report:
the system of care are often unnecessarily risk adverse due to the fear of
child fatalities and media consequences. … [E]xtreme caution and risk aversion
responses do not guarantee that tragic results will be avoided, and can cause
unnecessary trauma to children.
Indeed, as WFLA-TV documented
in this tragic case, it can cause a child to die in foster care
after being taken from a mother because that mother is poor.
What “risk averse”
really means is that child welfare investigators, supervisors and officials are
increasing the risk to children in order to decrease the risk to themselves.
The report found
that investigators in Hillsborough County rush to remove children “without
sufficient exploration, consideration, or conversation around reasonable
efforts to prevent removal …”
Yes, but that’s
Hillsborough, not Pinellas. True. But as noted earlier the rate of removal in
Pinellas is double the rate in Hillsborough. So either Pinellas
County Florida is a cesspool of depravity and parents in, say, St. Petersburg
really are twice as likely to abuse their children as parents in Tampa and four
times as likely to abuse their children as parents in Fort Lauderdale – or
Pinellas County is taking away a whole lot of children who could have remained
safely in their own homes.
It’s reasonable to
bet it’s the latter, especially since Pinellas is the home county of the Tampa
Bay Times, which has done everything it can to encourage the rush to tear apart families.
Don’t pass the
buck to the courts
confronted with high rates of removal, agencies will pass the buck to the
courts. We don’t take children, they
say, the courts have to approve everything we do. Somehow, they always manage to say this with
a straight face.
In fact, in Florida,
as in every state, the child protective services agency, in this case, the sheriff’s
office, has the power to remove children on the spot, entirely on their own authority. The family has to then fight to get them back. And it’s hardly a fair fight. Since the families are almost always are poor,
they almost always have to rely on an overwhelmed public defender who may have
met them for the first time in a hallway five minutes before the hearing.
Presiding is a judge
who knows that if he sends the child home and something goes wrong his career
is over (especially in Pinellas County where he’d have to face the wrath of the
Tampa Bay Times with its fanatical devotion to tearing apart
families). Leave the children to the
tender mercies of Eckerd Connects and the children may suffer terribly, but the
judge is safe.
Over in Louisiana, a
judge was commendably honest about this.
In a decision ordering the return home of a child he never should have
ordered taken away, the judge wrote:
Code has created a system in which a judge must make a decision about probable
cause based on factual and medical evidence without the benefit of a hearing,
review of evidence, or any of the fact-finding tools which are obligatory in
every other proceeding under the Anglo-American legal system ... This is a system which borders on a sham.”
And, of course, arguing
that judges said it was OK still doesn’t explain why Pinellas deputies believe
they need to bring these cases in the first place at a vastly higher rate than
their fellow deputies in neighboring counties.
None of this
should let Eckerd off the hook
The fact that
Sheriff Gualtieri and his counterparts in Pasco and Hillsborough Counties kept
dumping kids on Eckerd’s doorstep doesn’t mean Eckerd had to tolerate it. Had they spoken out loudly and clearly about
wrongful removal right from the beginning, they could have curbed it. As the “lead agency” for the region, Eckerd
had the most influence in the system. Eckerd could have educated deputies about
the harm of needless removal and pressed Gualtieri and his counterparts not to
take so many children needlessly. They also could have pressed the courts to
return children they thought the sheriff’s deputies had removed needlessly.
Instead, from all
appearances, they welcomed all those removals for years.
We predicted Eckerd
would fail as soon as they brought in as its director of community-based care
Chris Card, who has his own demonstrated devotion to the take-the-child-and-run approach to
child welfare. And sure enough, he
immediately lived down to his reputation.
What the Sheriff
On two points,
Sheriff Gualtieri is right. It would be
wrong to target low-level Eckerd employees and make them scapegoats; to his
credit he has pledged not to do this.
And there should be an investigation of Eckerd.
But, good intentions notwithstanding, Sheriff
Gualtieri shouldn’t be the one doing it.