Hillsborough advocates work to avert row over immigrant kids
While a controversy played out in Pasco County over the expansion of a shelter to house unaccompanied immigrant children, Hillsborough County child advocates and the judiciary quietly have been establishing a plan to thwart any future problems here.
Florida’s Children First, an organization founded by child advocate attorneys, says 161 children came to Hillsborough County between Jan. 1 and Aug. 31. All were placed with sponsors — in many cases, relatives — and have not created any strain on the child welfare system, said Robin Rosenberg, deputy director of the organization, which strives to make sure immigrant children have access to services and support they need to stay healthy and safe. The goal, she said, is to keep the young immigrants out of the child welfare system.
In the past 13 months, more than 63,000 undocumented minors have entered the United States over the Mexico border. The federal government is looking for places to house them until they can be placed with relatives or sponsors.
For months, officials in Hillsborough County, home to a large number of immigrant families, have been preparing for a possible large influx of undocumented children, should the federal government choose to send them here. A committee comprised of children’s advocates, attorneys and judges have formed the Unaccompanied Immigrant Children Committee of the 13th Judicial Circuit Community Alliance. The group is believed to be the first of its kind in the country, Rosenberg said.
“As a citizen of Tampa, I am really proud of our community for stepping up and being proactive in this,’’ Rosenberg said. “We are unique in the country. As far as we know, we are the first to take these steps.”
Immigrant children come to Hillsborough County all the time, she said, and are routinely placed with sponsors and relatives. But this summer, the tens of thousands that streamed across the border into the United States generated a national debate on immigration policies and how to handle all the undocumented children. Some welcomed them while others wanted to sent them back.
“We said let’s not wait three years down the road,” Rosenberg said. “We can be proactive here. We don’t want these kids to be on child welfare. We want them to be with families.”
Hillsborough County has a large immigrant population, she said, “so, we can expect as more come over, they will be placed with families here.”
Winter might be a time for another mass migration, she said.
Plans to accommodate some of the children over the summer ran into fierce opposition in Pasco County, but this week, the Pasco County Planning Commission approved plans to expand the Gulf Coast Jewish Family and Community Services shelter. The county commission will make the final decision.
Attorneys, child advocates and judges in Hillsborough County don’t want the same public fight to play out here.
“When we got word of the increasing tide of unaccompanied immigrant children entering the United States, our alliance agreed that we could make the greatest impact by getting the community together before we experienced problems,” said Circuit Judge Emily Peacock, who handles juvenile delinquency cases and who chairs the newly formed group.
In August, about two dozen of the unaccompanied immigrant children found a temporary home in Hillsborough County at The Children’s Home, a 122-year-old charity that through the years has cared for orphaned and foster children and kids who are victims of abuse and neglect.
So far, the influx has not jammed the system in Hillsborough County, but officials want to be ready.
“I see this planning process as the development of a primary prevention strategy to keep these children from unnecessarily entering the child welfare system,” said Kelly Parris, CEO of the Children’s Board of Hillsborough County, in a statement released this week.
“Hillsborough County,” she said, “has numerous organizations that provide a variety of services to immigrant populations across a rich and diverse community.”
Besides receiving education and health benefits, the children also need legal aid, a task being undertaken by Gulfcoast Legal Services, said Adriana Dinis, an attorney with the agency. Gulfcoast Legal Services, along with the Hillsborough County Bar Association’s Immigration and Nationality Section, is recruiting lawyers to donate their time.
“We need both immigration lawyers and lawyers who can help caregivers obtain legal custody in family, probate and dependency courts,” she said in a statement released Wednesday. “This spotlight on the new influx of children provides an opportunity for lawyers to step up and help these children.”
Kathleen Cowan, executive director of Eckerd Community Alternatives in Hillsborough County, said a main goal is to reduce the number of children in shelters.
“We already have great prevention and intervention services,” she said in a prepared statement, “so it makes sense on every level for our community to help caregivers before a crisis arises and children wind up in foster care.”
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