#childabuse | Joshua House in Lutz, founded in wake of child-abuse deaths, is shutting down

LUTZ — More than 2,000 foster children have found safe haven at Joshua House since it opened in 1992.

The idyllic, 11-acre campus in Lutz was a point of pride for Tampa Bay community and business leaders who raised millions of dollars for the project after the community was rocked by a spate of child-abuse deaths. They named the campus in honor of Joshua Collins, a 2-year-old beaten to death by his mother.

But the Children’s Home Society of Florida, which owns and operates the home, plans to shut it down by the end of March and sell it. It has already been in talks with a nonprofit interested in using the campus as a temporary home for undocumented children in federal immigration custody.

The move has touched off a bitter dispute with booster group Friends of the Joshua House. Its members say the Children’s Home Society is turning its back on Hillsborough’s vulnerable children and undoing the work of donors who raised millions to build and run the home.

“The founders that hired me, they put their heart and soul into this,” said DeDe Grundel, executive director of the Friends of the Joshua House. “They planted every tree, they made families and friends give up money to support this.”

Closing Joshua House is part of a shift away from residential group homes in favor of an increased focus on prevention efforts intended to keep families together, said Children’s Home Society vice president Heather Morgan. More children are removed because of neglect than abuse, she said. In many cases, those families can be kept together with services and support.

“Decades of research is directing us to refocus our work on prevention and behavioral health, and we are centering our efforts on preventing entries into foster care so we can improve lifetime outcomes for children,” she said in an email.

Officials at Lutheran Services Florida, a non-profit group whose mission includes care of refugees, said the group is in talks about renting the campus to house unaccompanied children in federal immigration custody. Any deal would depend on whether Lutheran Services lands a federal government contract, said spokeswoman Terri Durdaller.

Earlier this week, Children’s Home Society confirmed that it has a letter of intent with Lutheran Services. On Friday, officials from the nonprofit said they will put the campus on the market but give Friends of the Joshua House first refusal on the property as is required under a 2004 court agreement. The campus is valued at $2.8 million by the county property appraiser.

“We have made this decision so we can focus all of our efforts on evidence-based services for children and families in the community, rather than direct any resources or attention toward a property management and oversight situation,” Morgan said.

Officials from both groups met Thursday for more than seven hours, Grundel said. She would not disclose whether any agreement was reached but said Friends of the Joshua House hopes to buy the campus and continue the home’s mission to care for local children.

DeDe Grundel, executive director at Joshua House, checks out the fster home’s pantry. The Children’s Home Society of Florida is planning on closing Joshua House in March. [Times (2016)]

But a new federal bill puts group homes like Joshua House on shaky ground. The 2018 Family First Prevention Services Act prioritizes keeping children out of foster care by making more money available for in-home counseling and parenting classes to help families at risk of having children removed.

The bill also limits subsidies for stays in group homes to two weeks, with exemptions only for those that cater to children with severe medical or behavioral needs.

Related: Group homes brace for radical overhaul of federal foster care funding

Joshua House cares for severely traumatized kids but would not meet that criteria, Morgan said. The campus includes a treatment house with a team of six therapists. Placing children there is expensive, at $191 per child per day.

Closing Joshua House would cut the number of foster beds in Hillsborough at a time when the county has struggled to place foster children. The home is licensed for up to 36 children but currently has only 17.

Related: Joshua House group home feels strain as county’s foster population rises

Joshua House is the beneficiary of a number of charity galas on the Tampa Bay social calendar. A widespread community effort got the project off the ground, said Laurence Hall, owner of Robbins Manufacturing.

Hall was among business owners, community leaders and philanthropists who met at 7 a.m. every week for a year to plan Joshua House. The group included Hillsborough County Commissioner Dottie Berger MacKinnon, rancher and businessman Bob Thomas and tire dealer Olin Mott.

Hall and his wife, Carol Hall, adopted a child from Joshua House. Even after the campus was donated to Children’s Home Services, the booster group continued to contribute money for supplies and maintenance and to make up operating shortfalls.

“It’s not right they would take the effort and money from people like my husband and Bob Thomas and all the people who contributed and worked for Joshua House because they had a heart for these sweet little children,” Carol Hall said.

Greg Johnson, owner and president Precise Construction, was another benefactor. He said the campus benefited from almost $1 million of in-kind donations from building suppliers and roofers. It was always intended to be a home for Tampa Bay children, he said.

“They were inspirational people that had this dream of Joshua House,” Johnson said. “Hearing it may stop breaks my heart.”

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