Long-time community leaders in child welfare honored for public service

Two champions for child welfare received honors recently for their decades-long careers in protecting and supporting children in their most vulnerable moments.

Judge Katherine Essrig, a family court judge in Hillsborough County’s 13th Judicial Circuit, is a recipient of the Brian McEwen Award from the nonprofit Champions for Children. The award for “Outstanding Service to Children and Families” honors Essrig’s compassionate and effective service within the family court system.

Larry Cooper, chief of prevention and intervention service at the nonprofit Children’s Home Network, is a 2023 Tampa Bay Lightning Community Hero. A $50,000 grant from the Lightning Foundation will aid the nonprofit’s Kinship Navigation Program. The nationally- recognized program supports relatives and non-relatives who care for children outside the traditional foster care system.

A community coalition for children

Essrig and Cooper are part of a Tampa Bay area network of courts, community agencies and nonprofits that strive to give children and families a solid foundation for success. Within this network, science and data increasingly are essential guides in crafting policies for “best practices” in aiding at-risk children. In Hillsborough County, many of the programs, including Champions for Children and the Children’s Home Network, are supported by the Children’s Board of Hillsborough County.

The Kinship program began with a study by researchers at the University of South Florida. The study confirmed the growing number of grandparents raising grandchildren. Their research also captured “evidence-based” data that “kinship” care can be better for children than living in foster care with strangers.

The Kinship program “keeps kids out of the system, which I know can really be a terrible experience for many kids,” says Cooper.

The science and data aiding child welfare organizations are also essential to how courts and judges view their roles within the larger community, Essrig says. 

“You (once) thought staying in your lane was a good thing,” she says. “Now we know you can’t do this in a vacuum. The courts have to understand these things. We have to know what types of services work and what kinds of funding is needed.”

Decades of service

Essrig is known for reaching out to community organizations for resources to help the
at-risk children and families who wind up in her courtroom. Essrig received the Brian McEwen Award in April at the PACES Hillsborough 2023 Conference, which brought together about 200 participants to explore “Using the Science of Positive Childhood Experiences to Reduce the Impact of Trauma and Anxiety.” The conference was funded by the Children’s Board of Hillsborough County.

Judge Rick Nielsen presents the Brian McEwen Award to Judge Katherine Essrig.In typical fashion for Essrig, she didn’t come only to accept the award, says Amy Haile, chief executive officer of Champions for Children. Essrig participated in the conference to share insights into how the courts’ work fits within an overall mission to protect children and to learn from other leaders in child welfare.

Essrig is someone who goes “above and beyond,” says Haile.

“She never seems to shy from an opportunity to invite somebody in to look at processes and how they can be improved,” Haile says. “I think her lending credibility as a seasoned judge to this work is very helpful for us. She is approachable. She has dedicated her entire career to the dependency system and helping to create a community that keeps children safe and thriving.” 

Essrig was first elected as a circuit court judge in 1997. Currently, she is an administrative judge in the Unified Family Court and Juvenile Dependency Division. She serves on the Florida Dependency Model Courts Panel, and the Florida Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges.

Nearly a decade ago, Essrig supported an initiative from the guardian ad litem program to introduce professionally trained comfort dogs into the courtroom to ease the pain and trauma for children during court hearings. 

She has been a board member of the Children’s Board for more than 20 years and currently serves as the vice-chair. 

The Brian McEwen Award carries special significance as a legacy reminder of McEwen’s passion for child welfare. McEwen, former executive director of Champions for Children, died in 2018 of brain cancer at age 65. 

“I knew him well,” Essrig says. “He was such a tremendous leader and scholar.” 
Cooper’s Community Hero honor - presented in April at a Lightning home game - is an award also bestowed on McEwen days before his death. McEwen donated his $50,000 honorarium to Champions for Children.

Cooper’s $50,000 check will benefit the Children’s Home Network, especially in providing resources for the Kinship Navigation Program.

The award is gratifying, says Cooper, but he does not consider himself to be the real hero.

“It's about what these caregivers are having to do and to me they're heroes and this was just a nice award for me to win but really these (caregivers) are the ones making amazing sacrifices,” he says.

Cooper started as a USF college intern at the Children’s Home Network before stepping into leadership of the Kinship program more than 22 years ago. He has a master’s degree in social work from USF. In 2017, the Florida Coalition of Children singled Cooper out as its Social Worker of the Year.

Kinship care

In a press release, Irene Rickus, chief executive officer at Children’s Home Network, praised Cooper’s advocacy for kinship care. 

“Larry’s work on growing this program has had an incredible impact on the lives of so many families across Tampa Bay,” she says.

The Kinship program is in eight counties in Florida including Hillsborough, Pinellas, Pasco, Monroe, Seminole, Miami-Dade, Osceola, and Orange. Cooper is consulting with child welfare officials in Delaware about starting a similar program. Cooper says data shows that foster care children change homes on average seven times. But if they live with a grandparent or other relative they may move only once on average. Kinship care also allows children to hold onto family ties with cousins, aunts and uncles. Traditional foster care often separates siblings who are assigned to different foster care locations.

There simply aren’t enough foster parents to fill the need, Cooper says.

The main reasons for a child being removed from a home are domestic violence and substance abuse, including opioid and fentanyl addictions. Cooper adds that homelessness also can be a factor.

The phenomenon of grandparents or other relatives becoming second-time parents is nationwide, Cooper says.

There are many more children in kinship environments than children in foster care. For every child in Florida placed in foster care, seven other children are in kinship care. As of 2020, data showed Florida with about 23,000 foster children and 165,000 kinship children. Child welfare agencies across the country advocate for kinship placements over foster care.

Cooper says that the Kinship Navigation Program serves children and families within the court system, but that is only a small percentage of those who receive help.
Many more grandparents and relatives fall into the role of second-time parents without any connections to the courts, he adds.

“Maybe your daughter is struggling, lost her job and now she’s got some other issues going on and there’s a bad boyfriend. Grandma says, ‘Well I’ll take care of the kids until you get settled down,’” Cooper says.

Often relatives are ill-prepared for the new and sudden responsibilities they take on, and they don’t know where to turn for help, he added.

Kinship navigators at Children’s Home Network connect relative caregivers with a range of services including financial assistance, food sources and health care. It can be as basic as finding diapers, car seats or helping with school enrollments. Families in need often are living on fixed or low incomes. And older grandparents have their own health issues and food insecurities. The Kinship program also assigns a health and wellness specialist to help with these issues.

In addition, the kinship program hosts about 30 support groups a month as well as special events to educate caregivers on available resources.  

“It gives them a chance to meet and develop some support networks,” Cooper says. 

For more information, go to Champions for Children and Children’s Home Network.
To inquire about eligibility for the Kinship program, call 1-888-920-8761.
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Read more articles by Kathy Steele.

Kathy Steele is a freelance writer who lives in the Seminole Heights neighborhood of Tampa. She previously covered Tampa neighborhoods for more than 15 years as a reporter for The Tampa Tribune. She grew up in Georgia but headed north to earn a BA degree from Adelphi University in Garden City, NY. She backpacked through Europe before attending the University of Iowa's Creative Writers' Workshop for two years. She has a journalism degree from Georgia College. She likes writing, history, and movies.