TAMPA — Child welfare workers will have more options to house older and often hard-to-place foster kids through a deal approved Wednesday between Hillsborough County and Eckerd Kids, the agency that runs child welfare in Tampa Bay.
Under the agreement, Eckerd will be able to place children age 10 and up in two cottages at the county-run Lake Magdalene group foster home in Carrollwood until they get a longer-term placement. The 24 beds in the cottages will mean the group home can accommodate an additional 124 children a year, according to Eckerd.
The deal was put together just weeks after the Tampa Bay Times revealed that the two cottages had sat empty for almost a year even after Eckerd signed a contract in August to place children there.
"We're forging this unique partnership to address serious need in the community," said county Commissioner Sandy Murman, who serves on the county's Blue Ribbon Commission for Child Safety. "This will ease the strain on our existing foster care system."
Under the one-year deal, Eckerd will not pay rent but will pick up the cost of a licensed foster home provider to staff and care for children at the two cottages. It will also pay for licensed security guards for evenings and weekends and is required to submit a business plan detailing its expenses and staffing levels.
The county is required to pay for utilities, maintenance and janitor services.
Eckerd officials said the deal is an improvement on the original one approved by commissioners in August, which they said placed restrictions on which children could stay at the cottages.
They had been hoping to create a residential program that would be the first in the state to accept all foster children regardless of any concerns about past delinquency or mental and behavioral health concerns. But they balked at paying the $1.6 million they learned it would cost.
They have already chosen a foster care agency to run the new program at the cottages. That firm is going through the licensing application with the Florida Department of Children and Families, said Eckerd spokeswoman Adrienne Drew.
Eckerd has struggled to keep pace with the need for foster beds as the county has led Florida in the number of children taken into care.
In 2016, child protection investigators at the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office received more than 16,700 reports of abuse or neglect. They resulted in the removal of 1,592 children.
The peak came around May when almost 40 foster children slept for one or two nights on air mattresses in unlicensed facilities, including an office and a teen recreation center.
"We really need to get away from that," Murman said.
Contact Christopher O'Donnell at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 226-3446. Follow @codonnell_Times.