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Carlton: Foster kids deserve more than makeshift

It's not the worst story we've heard about how abused or neglected children taken from their homes are treated once they're in the system. Sadly, it's not even close.

But kids sleeping on air mattresses in offices because there are no foster beds — because there's nowhere else for them to go — is not okay. It's not okay even in Florida, with our abysmal record for how we treat kids who need help the most.

Earlier this month, Times reporter Christopher O'Donnell reported that 17 Hillsborough County children — mostly teens, but at least one as young as 11 — slept in an office and a teen rec center for a night or two after being taken from their homes because of abuse, neglect or domestic violence.

Eckerd Kids, the nonprofit that contracts with the state Department of Children and Families and is paid $70 million a year in Hillsborough, said there were no beds available. An Eckerd official attributed this in part to a surge in the number of kids taken in during April and May — an indeed eyebrow-raising increase of nearly 40 percent.

Yes, the improvised accommodations were better than nothing. And yes, these kids were fed, and had pillows, blankets and adult supervision.

But child welfare experts will tell you that makeshift is no way to treat a child in crisis. Plucked out of bad circumstances, these kids need secure, homelike settings as soon as we can make it happen.

Still, it sounded like a self-contained problem, maybe an aberration because of that high spike in numbers.

"We do not foresee ever going down that road again," Eckerd Kids' director of operations Lorita Shirley told the Times, except they already had.

As is tradition with stories of child welfare in Florida, the numbers — and the problem — grew from the initial reports.

As O'Donnell reported this week, it turns out that 43 kids have slept in unlicensed quarters over the past 18 months — several who were 10 or younger, and one who was only 4.

DCF called Eckerd's placement of them "inappropriate," and the failure to fully report the situation "inexcusable and absolutely unacceptable."

These are words we have heard before.

The executive director of Eckerd's Community Alternatives program resigned, or fell on her sword.

We've heard that before, too.

You do have to feel for people working on the front lines here and making do if there is truly nowhere else for these kids to go. You also have to feel the frustration of those who have raised flags about an underfunded, dysfunctional child welfare system for years.

About that spike in the number of kids coming into the system: Some speculate it could be a reaction to reports like the devastating Miami Herald series, Innocents Lost, chronicling children who died even after the state was warned they could be in danger.

Or maybe the jump can be attributed to something as simple as the end of the school year, with people calling the hotline worried about children headed home for the summer and into potentially dangerous circumstances.

Whatever the reason, officials here and in Tallahassee need to find a way to accommodate the need. Before we're reading this story again, or worse.

Sue Carlton can be reached at carlton@tampabay.com.

Carlton: Foster kids deserve more than makeshift 07/22/16 [Last modified: Friday, July 22, 2016 9:46pm]
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