DCF foster-care crisis team at work in Pinellas

By CURTIS KRUEGER, Times Staff Writer
Published November 14, 2007

LARGO - They call Alan Abramowitz the "firefighter."

He's the guy they call when a local foster-care system flares out of control.

Abramowitz is starting his second week in Pinellas County, where a recent state review concluded caseworkers feel they are "running in crisis mode."

Abramowitz has plenty of ideas about how to whip the foster care system into shape. And for him, one of the best ways to help a foster child is to prevent her from ever becoming one.

Who he is: Abramowitz, 45, came to the state Department of Children and Families not as a caseworker, but as an attorney. The FSU law school grad worked as a prosecutor, public defender and assistant general counsel for the state Department of Juvenile Justice. After seeing the turmoil affecting the child welfare system after the 1998 death of a girl named Kayla McKean, he said, "you start thinking how can I become involved and make things better?" He started worked for the DCF in 2000 as the general counsel for a central Florida region. He is currently the DCF's top guy in Brevard and Seminole counties, and acting administrator in Palm Beach County.

What he's doing here: His team is designed to give extra support to local workers and ease their feelings of crisis. He brought in experienced case managers to act as coaches for Pinellas' relatively inexperienced staff and to help license more foster homes, which are in short supply.

His take on the Sarasota Family YMCA: The DCF announced last week it will seek another agency to run foster care work in Pinellas and Pasco counties on the heels of a report critical of the agency's performance. Abramowitz said he's impressed that Sarasota YMCA officials who supervise foster care in Pinellas and Pasco are doing all they can to work with the team and strengthen the system even though they're on their way out.

His philosophy: Parents, even those struggling with drugs, poverty or neglect, still probably provide the best home for their children, except in severe cases. Caseworkers should think carefully before removing them. He cites a recent MIT study that found that children taken out of neglectful homes and put into foster care are more likely to get pregnant as teenagers and suffer other problems than children who stay with their families in homes that are just as neglectful.

What's next: Abramowitz's team will remain in Pinellas for at least a month. At least one local nonprofit, Eckerd Youth Alternatives, is considering applying to take over the $49-million foster care contract by July 1. The YMCA's subcontractors, who actually employ the case managers, are expected to stay on a year after that.

Curtis Krueger can be reached at ckrueger@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8232.