TAMPA — A foster care agency has lost a $9.2 million contract and been reported to the state’s abuse hotline after reports that its staff left foster children unsupervised.
Eckerd Connects, the lead child welfare agency in Tampa Bay, said Tuesday that it is terminating its contract with Youth and Family Alternatives to provide case management for foster children in Hillsborough County.
That comes after the agency dropped off a teenage girl early on Jan. 24 in front of an Eckerd office in Tampa alone, hungry and crying, Eckerd said in statement.
A subsequent investigation by Eckerd found that children being left unsupervised by YFA was "not an isolated incident."
Eckerd has reported the incidents to the Florida Department of Children and Families and the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office, which conducts investigations into allegations of child abuse and neglect for the county.
"It was more than an isolated practice occurring so we decided yesterday to terminate the contract," said Doug Tobin, Eckerd spokesman.
Spokeswoman Lisa Brock said YFA acted once it learned that children were being left unsupervised. Case managers were having to deal with some older teens who sometimes refuse to go to school and to foster homes.
"When we became aware that children were unsupervised we immediately stopped that practice and obviously people in the child welfare system are dealing with human beings and, in part, these teens come from abused and neglected backgrounds and don’t always conform and cooperate," she said.
She added that YFA will continue to work to come up with solutions on how to deal with hard-to-place teens in foster care.
The termination of the contract will not take effect until May 7. Eckerd plans to conduct an emergency bid procedure to find a new agency to replace YFA, which was handling some 1,700 children in Hillsborough, Tobin said.
Eckerd’s decision will not affect YFA’s $5 million contract with Eckerd to provide case management services in Pasco County. "We had a number of stakeholders who said Pasco management and operations was running smoothly," Tobin said.
Tobin added that the decision to terminate YFA was not in response to a recent WFLA story that difficult to place teenagers spent hours sitting in a car at a gas station with a YFA case manager so they could use its free Wi-Fi connection.
DCF Secretary Mike Carroll said in a statement that case managers who have face-to-face interaction with children have a duty to get them the necessary counseling and other services and not just find them a bed for the night.
"It appears that was not happening, and their contract has been terminated as a result of poor case management," he said.
"DCF has been working with Eckerd on short- and long-term solutions to this issue since it was brought to our attention on Jan. 24 and we will continue to closely monitor Eckerd’s progress to ensure safe and appropriate placements for every teenager in their care."
Older teens who often refuse to cooperate with case managers have been a headache for Eckerd for a while.
In 2016, the agency admitted that 43 children, mostly older teens, had slept in offices and other unlicensed locations because it could not place them in foster homes.
In May, Eckerd terminated a $500,000 contract with Camelot Community Care to run the Ybor Heights teen center, which is used to temporarily house and supervise children entering the foster care system until they are placed with foster parents or in a group home.
The Tampa Police Department had responded to 13 disturbance calls and 57 runaway reports at the center in a five-month period, records show.
Contact Christopher O’Donnell at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 226-3446. Follow @codonnell_Times.