TAMPA — Some of them were still traumatized after being taken from their homes because of issues like abuse, neglect or domestic violence.
But on their first night in the state's care, 17 Hillsborough County foster children ended up sleeping on air mattresses in an office building and a teen recreation center.
Officials acknowledge that over a three-week period in May and June, they had the foster children sleep for one or two nights in buildings intended only for daytime use. There were no available beds elsewhere, according to Eckerd Kids, a nonprofit group that is paid $70 million a year by the state to place and care for children in foster and group homes in Hillsborough.
Most of the children were 16 and 17, but at least one was 11. Officials said they told the Florida Department of Children and Families where the children were sleeping.
DCF said no child in care should sleep or even spend long periods in office locations, hotels or other unapproved accommodation.
"DCF is reviewing Eckerd's failure to find appropriate placement and will impose a formal corrective action plan if the issue is not quickly and thoroughly resolved," said Jessica Sims, a DCF spokeswoman.
The children who slept in make-do accommodations all had acute treatment needs or behavioral issues that required more support than regular foster or residential homes typically provide, said Lorita Shirley, director of operations for Eckerd Kids.
Also, a spike in the number of children being taken into care that month used up available beds, she said. Typically, about 140 children a month are removed from their families because of concerns for their safety and placed with relatives, foster parents or in group homes, Shirley said.
In May, that number went up to 195, a surge of almost 40 percent.
"It is always a failure of the system if it cannot accommodate every youth that is brought into the child welfare system," she said. "We've been fortunate to not have any more kids staying the night in an office, and we do not foresee ever going down that road again."
In response, the DCF has set up a work group with officials from Eckerd, the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office, Guardian ad Litem program and the judicial system to look into the increase in the removal rate of children, Sims said.
The two locations converted into makeshift residential centers for children were an office building on 51st Street N used by Devereux, a firm that contracts with Eckerd, and a teen center run by Camelot Community Care on Nebraska Avenue.
The teen center has a kitchen, TV, games and other activities, Shirley said.
In most cases, children only stayed one or two nights at the facilities before being placed. In addition to air mattresses, blankets and pillows were supplied and the children had access to showers.
Dinner was brought in for them and there was trained adult supervision throughout their stay, Shirley said.
Placing children is more than just finding an empty bed. Some have behavioral and mental health issues. Some have been released from Department of Juvenile Justice detention centers. There also is a requirement to keep siblings together when possible.
State law requires that foster parents be made aware of the full history of a child before they agree to host them.
The strain on the child welfare system in Hillsborough is well known to professionals who work in that field.
Rosemary Armstrong, executive director of Crossroads for Florida Kids, said it's typical for children taken into care to have behavioral issues and placing them in temporary accommodation could exacerbate their problems.
"These kids need more attention and sleeping in an office isn't the way to handle their issue in a way that will lead to success," she said.
Robin Rosenberg, deputy director of Florida's Children First, a statewide advocacy organization focused on children's rights, said in addition to the use of temporary accommodations, children may be being moved from one temporary home to another too frequently.
"When the system is overcrowded, they go somewhere temporarily and then move until they can find somewhere they can stay longer," she said. "We harm them when we move them."
Eckerd provides social services for children and families in 20 states. Since 2012, it has handled foster care placement and provided social services for children taken into care in Hillsborough County through a contract with DCF. It also runs diversion and prevention programs to prevent at-risk children from having to be taken into care.
The Clearwater company is paid $65 million to provide the same services in Pinellas and Pasco counties, a contract it was first awarded in 2008.
Hillsborough County is the second largest area for children taken into care in Florida, after Broward County. Including children placed with relatives and friends, about 2,000 children are under state care here.
Foster homes and licensed residential centers can accommodate a little more than 1,000 children, according to Eckerd. But providers also accept children from other counties, using up capacity, Shirley said.
The decision to remove children from their families in Hillsborough is made by the Child Protective Investigative Division, a unit of the Hillsborough Sheriff's Office.
Capt. Jim Bradford said there has been no change in the criteria they use when deciding to remove a child. The increase in May is a result of more calls coming in on the Florida Abuse Hotline, he said.
Shirley said Eckerd is working to ensure there is no repeat of the accommodation crisis.
It has met with Hillsborough County officials to discuss expanding the county's 30-bed residential program. It has also met with providers to discuss how to increase the number of available beds and raise awareness of the need for more foster parents.
Hillsborough County Commissioner Sandy Murman, who worked on child welfare issues during her time as a state lawmaker, said she wants the problem resolved quickly.
"It is not an acceptable practice," Murman said. "These kids are getting ripped away from anything they've ever known as far as their personal family. We need to make sure they are safe and secure as quickly as possible."
Contact Christopher O'Donnell at [email protected] or (813) 226-3446. Follow @codonnell_Times.