Children's Board of Hillsborough County report shines light on community needs

The top three critical needs of parents and children in Hillsborough County are mental health support, affordable housing and child care.

That is the takeaway from the Children’s Board of Hillsborough County’s recently released report on a series of town hall community meetings and a countywide survey.

Two other needs deemed critical in the report are parent training and parental support.

Maria Negron, director of programs for the Children’s Board, is in one way encouraged that parents consider mental health help – for themselves and their children – as the top critical need. It suggests that the stigma against seeking mental health help is fading.

“The last time we did a town hall was in 2020, we did see similar needs then,’’ she says, “but I think it’s really different. If you look at the section where it talks about what parents would like to see, I think they’re getting more comfortable with talking about mental health needs.’’ 

The report is the result of conversations with 480 parents in eight live town hall meetings around the county, plus two virtual town hall meetings with stakeholders – nonprofits, government entities and partners the board works with to help children. With its budget of $66.1 million, much of it from ad valorem taxes, the Children’s Board helps fund 66 nonprofits and 110 programs in the county.

The report lists 28 needs in order of urgency. The “critical” needs category is followed by five “imperative’’ needs: socialization; language access and support for people whose first language is not English; food support; transportation; and healthy nutrition. The next category, labeled “important’’ needs, lists immigration services, educational resources, financial stability support, physical health and employment programs.

Children and parents face challenges

Many families seek help from seven Children’s Board Family Resource Centers around the county, which are managed by Lutheran Services Florida. 
The centers provide a space for mental health counseling and stay open later for parents who work, but there’s a shortage of that kind of help, says Tyheshia Scott, director of the Children’s Board Family Resource Centers.

“We need to reach out to the community for support to bring in those specialists to help with even math tutoring, reading tutoring and the things that the community asks for like the mental health services,’’ she says.

Parents seek such help for a variety of issues, including some created by the shutdown due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Scott says.

“We have children that were affected by the loss of socialization,” she says. “Think about those early developmental ages, what are those kids doing before they get to school, as soon as they get to school? They’re playing with other children.”

“We have a whole group of kids who went to kindergarten in front of a computer
screen, so we have lost that socialization,’’ Scott adds. “If don’t have that socialization, you have children that have, or at least appear to have, conditions that are related to autism and other spectrum-related disorders.’’

The society kids live in now also creates mental and emotional health problems.

“You have kids connected to social media and other platforms like that at an early age, and they’re feeling pressures that we would have before associated with teenagers. That’s happening earlier now,’’ Scott says. “Kids are not necessarily themselves. They are not developed enough to be able to cope with some of those outside pressures.’’

The parents have their own needs for mental and emotional support.

“The parents themselves are feeling the pressure of being able to meet the needs of their families,’’ Scott says. “When you see the rising cost of food and housing and things like that, there’s a lot of pressure associated with being able to meet their family’s needs in an economy the way that it is right now.’’

Parents are seeking individual counseling as well as the ability to network with other parents in the same situation.

“Most parents expressed the need for parenting classes and training as part of a deeper desire to understand how to communicate with their child in healthy ways and how to navigate those moments when their child chooses to act out,’’ the report states.

“Several parents expressed the feeling that they are the only ones experiencing the challenge of parenting,’’ according to the report. “They knew this was false but acknowledged ‘that if you don’t talk to someone who has kids your kid’s age, it’s hard to imagine a shared experience.’ Sharing the successes and frustrations of parenting is viewed by many parents as a cathartic reducer of stress.’’

A community resource

The Family Resource Centers have professionals who come in to teach parenting classes. One of the first things they address to new parents is the danger of becoming frustrated with their baby’s crying and shaking the child, which can cause immediate and permanent brain damage. Instructors stress to parents that since infants can’t talk yet, crying is their only form of communication.

“As a parent, then we start to go down the list,” Scott says. “Have we been fed? Are you sleepy? Are you wet? And then it’s, ‘Okay, I’ve done all these things. Now I call the professional.’ ’’

They help the parent reframe the thought process of why the baby is crying, and they talk to parents “about allowing themselves breaks, giving themselves the ability to take a breath, to just breathe,” she says.

The resource centers serve people in all income brackets, and the affordable housing crisis in the community affects middle-class residents as well, but it’s a much tougher situation for the poor.

“With housing in critical demand due to the population boom in the Tampa Bay area, gentrification, exploitative landlords and other factors, parents are struggling to not only find housing but to stay in their homes,’’ the report states.

Scott says the Family Resource Centers work closely with the Tampa Housing Authority to assist community members facing affordable housing issues. THA representatives come into the centers and talk to parents about establishing or repairing their credit so they are better prepared for home ownership or renting.

Seeking child care solutions 

The third top critical need, child care, is especially daunting for many families.

“Caregivers are feeling like the child care problem lacks reasonable solutions,’’ the report states. “Increasing demand and lack of capacity is especially concerning for parents living in densely populated parts of the community.’’

Negron notes the costs have gone up significantly. Also, if child care ends at a particular time of day and transportation barriers prevent a parent from picking up their child by a certain time, they are now facing extra costs for late pick-up.

And the issue isn’t just child care. It’s also coordinating the effort to transport children who want to participate in activities as they get older, she says. It’s a matter of how child care works with the parents’ schedule, she says. 

“If your child care ends at 5 o’clock and so does your work hour, what do you do about that?” Negron says. “How do you get somebody else to pick up your child? It’s very complex.’’

Additional community needs

After critical, imperative and important needs, the report lists “acknowledged’’ needs: services for children with special needs; access to technology; family activities; recreation; de-stigmatization of families seeking resources; health care; respite, self-care; community safety and crime prevention; outdoor spaces; domestic violence prevention; career training; financial literacy; and clothing.

The solutions, Negron says, will take a team effort.

“One of the best parts of the report for me is what parents would like to see,’’ she says. “One thing parents said they’d like to see is the agencies come together to provide solutions. If you go to the stakeholder feedback that we received, the number one resource that they fall back on is partnerships.

“So it’s kind of like, how do we leverage this?” Negron says. “Both stakeholders and parents recognize the value of partnerships, so I think there’s definitely (a need for) further exploration among partners... to explore the resources, explore the opportunities. And then they can identify what needs to be strengthened.”

For more information, go to 2023 Community Town Hall report.

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Read more articles by Philip Morgan.

Philip Morgan is a freelance writer living in St. Petersburg. He is an award-winning reporter who has covered news in the Tampa Bay area for more than 50 years. Phil grew up in Miami and graduated from the University of Florida with a degree in journalism. He joined the Lakeland Ledger, where he covered police and city government. He spent 36 years as a reporter for the former Tampa Tribune. During his time at the Tribune, he covered welfare and courts and did investigative reporting before spending 30 years as a feature writer. He worked as a reporter for the Tampa Bay Times for 12 years. He loves writing stories about interesting people, places and issues.