TAMPA — A judge’s job is deciding between two sides that often are very far apart, but Katherine Essrig is gaining a reputation as a woman who helps bring people together.
Essrig, who presides in Hillsborough’s family dependency and child welfare court, is one of seven people nationwide honored recently for their leadership in reducing the number of children in foster care.
Essrig received a 2015 Casey Excellence for Children Award, given by Casey Family Programs — created by the founder of UPS and associated with the philanthropic Annie E. Casey Foundation.
Essrig, 58, a Tampa native and University of Florida graduate, has drawn state and national attention for her work on and off the bench.
“She is tireless and relentless in making things better for children,” said Patricia Macias, managing director of judicial engagement at Casey Family Programs. “What makes her unique is that people go to her and go to her for advice in all spectrums. They seek her out because she has built trust.”
In court, Essrig works with often-painful cases involving children under 18 who have found their way into the judicial system — whether they are abused, runaways, abandoned or in the adoption process.
Essrig also has held positions on panels and committees working to improve the treatment of children in Hillsborough’s justice system and across Florida. Casey programs took special note of her leadership in establishing a collaborative project called the Safe Reduction Workgroup.
“The award should really go to the workgroup,” said Essrig, showing the humility that her fans see as one of her most effective qualities. “It has been such a huge effort by a lot of different people. I’m really just the convener.”
Created in 2013, the Safe Reduction Workgroup brings together different players in the child welfare community — some of them at odds with one another when they’re before the bench — to develop and analyze volumes of data in pinpointing the most effective tools for dealing with troubled families.
One result of their work is the creation of a new type of child-care course for parents who have landed before the judicial system.
“To me, it is exceptional because this was the community’s response to a real issue to children in the system,” said Page Walley, managing director of strategic consulting at Casey programs. “The community took it upon themselves to solve the problem.”
Typically, adults who come before the dependency court are required to undergo parenting classes approved by the state. These new, local classes follow a different curriculum, emphasizing parenting skills that include creating healthy support systems and coping with difficult situations.
Under the work group’s vision plan, these classes include surveys and standardized assessments so the group can measure whether the classes are working, then adjust them if not and replicate them if so.
“We have brought all these people together in order to raise our level of care and make the system work better,” Essrig said.
Participants in the work group include the state Attorney General’s Office, the Department of Children and Families, and the companies and organizations that contract to provide juvenile services.
The group’s projects are still in development, but members point to improvement already: Reports of children who experienced repeat abuse or mistreatment during a six-month period fell by 1.7 percent, a bigger drop than the state average for the period. There also have been small declines in the number of children requiring diversion to care outside their homes, according to the work group’s 2014 annual report.
“It is collaboration in the true sense of the word,” Essrig said, “and we are so lucky because we can all manage to get along so well.”
Still, it is through Essrig’s leadership that Hillsborough is keeping more children and families together without the need to send them into foster care, said Robin Rosenberg, deputy director of Florida’s Children First, a nonprofit that advocates for children’s rights.
Essrig recognized the need to change the culture of parents and courts and is succeeding, in part, because of her humble and respectful nature, Rosenberg said.
“There are a lot of judges in the Florida welfare system,” she said, “but what makes Essrig different is that she carries her judicial demeanor with her into her work. She’s not doing it in an in-your-face manner.”
Rosenberg added, “She really has been a leader in bringing together leaders in the child welfare community.”
Essrig is the daughter of Cecile Essrig, first female member of the Hillsborough County School Board, and granddaughter of a community volunteer for whom Tampa’s Daisy G. Waterman Lighthouse for the Blind is named.
She received her law degree from the University of Florida in 1981, worked as an attorney and was elected to the Hillsborough circuit court in 1997. In 2012, she received the William E. Gladstone Award recognizing judicial leadership and service to Florida’s children.
Essrig said she believes the children who come before the court are the community’s children and helping them is a community mission.
“That’s the thing about Katherine,” said her husband, Kevin Napper. “What you see is what you get. She is so bright and humble and she really cares about the kids.”
For the Casey Family Programs, Essrig’s initiative in creating community solutions represents the group’s core values. That’s no coincidence. The Casey program has done more than honor the success of the work group.
Not long after Essrig began putting together the group, Casey sent a strategic consultant to help with organization.
“What we are trying to do is lift up the kind of stellar practice that we think is sensitive to the needs of the children,” said Walley of Casey programs. “We want to lift them up to emulate as real examples for the nation.”
Doha Madani is a Tribune intern and a student at the University of Tampa.