Manatee County was second among Florida's 67 counties for the percentage of children removed from their homes last year because of concerns about their welfare. Sarasota and DeSoto counties were No. 1.
Of the 447 Manatee children removed from their homes last year as a result of a child protection investigation, more than half of the situations were related to substance abuse, child welfare systems advocate Nathan Scott informed county commissioners on Tuesday. About 50 percent of the children were ages 5 and under.
"I really think we have a substance use epidemic on our hands," Scott said, adding there has been a rise in abuse of stimulants like cocaine and methamphetamine.
The child welfare system has been overwhelmed by the numbers. But officials hope recruiting more foster parents will help.
Because removals can involve more than one issue, 46 percent involved domestic violence, 37 percent were because of lack of supervision and 25 percent involved physical injury. The most affected ZIP codes included 34208, 34205 and 34207.
Nine children died in 2017, but most of them were drowning or sleep-related. One child — 12-year-old Abraham Luna — died last July as a result of an accidental shooting. None of the children were in contact with the Department of Children and Families in the 12 months before their deaths. Any child death that had not been reported to the Department of Children and Families hotline was not included.
Since 2015, the height of the opioid epidemic, the rate of child removal in Manatee County has stayed above the state average, said Brena Slater, vice president of community based care for the Safe Children Coalition that serves Manatee, Sarasota and DeSoto counties.
Right now, there are 1,500 children being supervised in the three counties, which comprise the 12th Judicial District. More than half of them are either in foster care or staying with relatives or non-relatives, Slater said.
Aside from substance abuse, the lack of financial support has caused a burden for the foster care system. Over the past three years, the deficit for funding has grown, most recently with a $3.8 million shortfall.
Despite this, Scott noted there have been proactive measures taken. The rate of family reunifications meet state and federal standards, and Manatee County was the first in Florida to implement the "Handle With Care" program.
If a child is present for a traumatic situation like domestic violence or drug abuse, law enforcement officers will send a note to the school district, advising to "Handle (child's name) With Care." Doing so won't violate privacy issues, and will give instructors a heads up to why a child may be acting out or feeling sick that day. Scott said it's also a way to not risk re-traumatizing the child.
In April alone, 36 notices were sent to the Manatee school district, Scott said. Most of the notices were for white middle school students in the ZIP codes of 34205, 34208 and 34222. These incidents, primarily related to drug overdose or domestic violence, almost always happened during the weekend.
These statistics also show a need for more foster beds and parents in Manatee County. In the past fiscal year, the Safe Children Coalition was able to secure an additional 50 foster homes, which can hold between one and five children each. Next year, Slater hopes they get 100 more.
Community partners came together last year to form the Manatee County Foster Care Initiative. With support from the Manatee Community Foundation and Charles and Margery Barancik Foundation, the partners hope the Foster Manatee initiative will be the outreach tool needed to make this goal achievable.
Safe Children Coalition is sponsoring a foster parenting informational meeting from 6 to 7:15 p.m. June 20 at the Sarasota YMCA, 1500 Independence Blvd, No. 210.