Stacy Gromatski: Staffing shortages at shelters could hurt at-risk youth

Upset teenager sitting in gateway, emigrant facing life difficul
Will there be enough staff to help them?

It’s 3 p.m. Friday and you just found out that your daughter skipped school today for the third time this month. On top of that, she has been sneaking out at night and you are concerned about some of the pictures on her cellphone.

You read a text on her phone that she plans to run away so that she can get high with some older kids.

You have tried everything to get her under control and you are now at your limit. The school suggests you call the local teen shelter.

Thank goodness there is a place that she can go and that can help your family.

Across town, Joe, a staff member at the shelter, takes the call from the frantic parent. Joe has a hard decision to make; there aren’t enough staff to cover the evening shift. The shelter has already been running at a lower capacity because there aren’t enough employees left to make sure the kids are safely supervised — and now two of the three on the night shift are sick and cannot come in.

The manager is exhausted from having to cover shifts, so Joe will have to work a double, and the director will come in to help.

Because of the staff shortages, the decision has been made to halt admissions, but Joe knows that bad things may happen to this girl if she doesn’t get help quickly.

All throughout Florida, tough decisions like this are being made every day at shelters that are designed to be safety nets for children and families in crisis. Staffing shortages have forced capacity to be reduced and some shelters are temporarily closing.

We are fortunate in Florida that the state Legislature funds a statewide network of youth shelters as a part of the Florida Network of Youth and Family Services. These programs serve about 15,000 children and families in crisis each year. Most of these children in crisis are ready to run away or engage in other risky behavior. Some are abused and neglected. Most have behavioral or mental health problems. Many are homeless.

The Department of Juvenile Justice funds these programs as prevention for juvenile delinquency. They have a 90 percent success rate in preventing delinquency, and findings by independent research organizations show that these programs not only work, but save taxpayers $160 million each year — if only they can stay open.

This year, they have had to limit services due to staffing shortages. Direct care staff earn an average of $11 per hour and many are leaving the field for better pay and less stressful jobs. For these programs to stay whole we need an increase in funding to support an increase in wages. This is a job that few people want, and even fewer can do.

People who are under-prepared, under-paid and under pressure lead to poor outcomes for Florida’s families in crisis. If we care about getting good results for our most vulnerable, then we must compensate them fairly. At the rate that staff are leaving these jobs, not only has capacity been reduced, but some programs may close altogether leaving desperate families with nowhere to turn. The last two years have shown us the importance of safety nets, but our safety nets are shredding at a time when the need is at its greatest.

Another day comes to a close, and there are still children in need of shelter. But will there be enough staff to help them?

We commend Gov. Ron DeSantis for including pay increases to shelter staff in his budget recommendations. We urge the legislature to fund increases for staff salaries, so that the answer can be yes when the call comes in.

If you are interested in a career helping children in crisis, who often only need an adult to care and believe in them, please visit our job board at


Stacy Gromatski, Ed.S., is president/CEO of the Florida Network of Youth and Family Services. She can be reached at [email protected].

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One comment

  • Mark A Wickham

    January 28, 2022 at 7:45 am

    Well done Stacy! The perfect storm of COVID and the great resignation has put our children’s safety net in jeopardy. We operate three residential shelters for youth in three communities a much needed service to our children and families. We serve over 1000 youth in these shelters a year. The community relies on us to be there in their time of need. Over the past two years and more so this year we have had to close admissions for staffing reasons or because of COVID. None of us want to have to close admissions especially during this time when families need us more now than ever. Paying our staff $11-$12 dollars an hour does not even come close to a living wage. Most of our employees have to have second jobs to be able to make ends meet. Our children are the future and we must let them know this by paying for highly skilled employees. Most of the children we serve need specialized services and we must as a state be able to make sure theses services are available to them. Please continue to support us by helping us increase the pay for our employees who give so much of themselves. Our staff do this work because they know they are making a difference and helping to children get their lives back on track. More importantly support your community so that these programs do not go away or have to limit the children we need to serve. Our children are our future leaders, politicians, doctors, lawyers, service workers and yes even youth counselors. Please help us by helping is raise the wages we pay our employees they deserve it, our children deserve it!

    Mark Wickham

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