TAMPA — The foster children that no one wants in Hillsborough County often don’t know where they will sleep until well into the evening. The foster parents that eventually take them usually want them gone early the next morning.
As many as 35 children live this "chaotic and transient lifestyle,’’ a new report on Hillsborough County’s troubled foster system found. Some refuse to go to school because their clothes are dirty and they don’t have access to laundry and hygiene products. They often go without nutritious or home-cooked food.
And shuffling children from one foster home to another has become an acceptable alternative even for young children and infants, the report states.
The scathing review has led the state to publicly warn lead agency Eckerd Connects that it must fix the county’s foster system or risk losing its $77 million annual contract. The Florida Department of Children and Families has ordered Eckerd to come up with a corrective action plan by June 30. If it fails to live up to that plan, its contract could be terminated.
"We will continue to hold Eckerd Connects accountable and will stop at nothing to ensure these children receive the care and services they deserve," DCF Secretary Mike Carroll said in a statement. "We owe it to every child in this system to provide a stable, loving home with an adult who cares about them."
The handling of so-called "night-to-night’’ placement children is only one of many issues identified by a panel of 10 experts who compiled the report. DCF assembled the group in February after it emerged that some children sat in a car for hours at a gas station until a bed for the night was found.
"I feel like the system I was brought into is worse than home was," one child told panel members.
The panel also found that:
• too many children remain in foster care for more than one year.
•there are not enough places for children with behavioral health needs.
• the lack of stability leaves children isolated and feeling unwanted.
• children wait too long for services like counseling and health assessments because of a cumbersome referral process.
Top executives at Eckerd Connects also came under fire, with the panel concluding that the child welfare system lacks effective leadership and that there is a lack of trust between Eckerd and the non-profit agencies it contracts with to provide case managers.
Eckerd Connects leaders said they already are working to adopt some of the recommendations made by the panel and have reduced the number of children on night-to-night placement to about a dozen. Many of then are older teens who have been expelled from school or released from juvenile detention centers.
It plans to make sure children who have bounced from home to home or have refused placements have mental health therapists and case mangers whose job is to ensure they get the treatment they need. They will be assigned mentors and those who don’t go to school will be enrolled in Hope Street, a day treatment program that includes activities and learning.
Each child will also have a Guardian ad Litem, a volunteer who advocates for the child during his or her time in foster care, said Chris Card, who took over as chief of community-based care for Hillsborough, Pinellas and Pasco counties in May.
"I would agree it’s unacceptable and we certainly have made every effort to take care of those issues,’’ Card said. "These kids do have placements and we are making sure they’re getting their needs met."
Finding suitable homes for older teens has been a problem for Eckerd for at least two years. One reason: Hillsborough has more children in foster care than any other Florida county, despite its No. 4 ranking in population. More than 3,500 Hillsborough children are either in foster care or at risk of being removed from their homes.
In 2016, the agency acknowledged that 43 children, mostly older teens, had slept in offices and other unlicensed locations because it could not place them in foster homes.
In February, it fired Youth and Family Alternatives from a $9.2 million contract to provide case managers after it found a pattern of teens being left unsupervised.
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Card said that the different organizations that make up the foster care system haven’t always had a consistent approach. The initial investigation of reports of abuse or neglect is conducted by the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office. The State Attorney’s Office provides attorneys to represent the state in shelter hearings.
"We will get on the same page," Card said. "Everyone has the same compassion for the work and intent to do the right thing."
Paying for extra services will also be a challenge. About $18 million of the money the agency gets goes directly to foster parents and families who adopted children. Eckerd Connects has run a deficit the last three years.
Roy Miller, president of the Tallahassee non-profit The Children’s Campaign, said the report has shed light on failures that Eckerd Connects has in the past tried to hide or blamed on its providers.
He said the agency, which was hired in 2012, deserves a second chance but that DCF should make good on its threat if foster care failures persist.
"The sadness here is that children were removed from chaotic and troubled homes and were subjected to even worse chaos and trouble in the system that was supposed to take care of them," Miller said.
Contact Christopher O’Donnell at [email protected] or (813) 226-3446. Follow @codonnell_Times.