TAMPA — Hillsborough County's residential complex for troubled kids has never looked better. A $9.3 million expansion is under way, including cottages with private bedrooms opening in January.
But former and current employees say the quality of care on the 33-acre Carrollwood campus has gone dangerously downhill. Problems proliferate even as beds go unused.
Among the issues cited in staff reports:
Last summer, teens ran from the center at an unprecedented clip — 142 times in 120 days.
Residents have been arrested 18 times in the past year, accused of attacking staffers, smoking pot and getting into fistfights.
Two kids tested positive for sexually transmitted diseases, and two girls said they were raped while AWOL.
Staff stood by recently while an enraged teen tried to destroy the custodian's golf cart and kicked in his office door.
One runaway returned to the shelter from her "DJ job" wearing short shorts, tube top, gold high heels and leopard spots on her face and legs.
Dr. Jessica Rausch-Medina, a child psychiatrist who evaluates residents, has heard teen girls say they didn't feel safe in the shelter.
"They feel the place is out of control," said Rausch-Medina, who has been consulting there since 2004. "It's in a terrible state of disarray."
On Thursday, the state Department of Children and Families released the results of its investigation into persistent complaints about Hillsborough's residential programs. Kids, when interviewed, said they felt safe on campus, the DCF report said. However childcare workers worried about safety when teens left campus without permission.
The report recommended better communication between management and staff, more training for employees, clearer policies regarding runaways and naming a shelter resident to be a liaison with staff.
Tom Papin oversees the programs as director of the county's department of children's services. He insists the concerns that led to DCF's investigation are overblown. He blames the controversy on disgruntled employees who are having trouble dealing with more difficult kids.
"We're on the right track," said Papin, a jovial guy who wears Winnie the Pooh ties. "I can feel it in my gut."
County spending $170,000 per child
Hillsborough got into the business of caring for troubled kids back in the late 1940s, when a home for delinquent boys was built on the acreage off Lake Magdalene Boulevard.
Today the campus has two cottages with 12 beds for kids referred by the Department of Juvenile Justice; a 24-bed Family Treatment Program, aimed at younger children with emotional and behavioral problems; and a separate 40-bed emergency shelter that serves older, hard-to-place teens repeatedly bounced out of foster homes.
Though the complex can accommodate 76 residents, only about 40 kids live there. The number of child care staff positions has remained the same.
With a county budget of $7-million a year, the cost to taxpayers averages out to about $170,000 per child.
"That's scandalous," said state Sen. Ronda Storms, a critic of the programs since her tenure as a county commissioner. Storms pushed for renovation of the shelter in 2006 but said she still hears complaints about services.
"That program is unsuccessful and woefully inadequate," she said. "I wonder why we're continuing a program that's failing."
Lake Magdalene's residential programs have floundered for several reasons.
The much-touted Family Treatment program is down to four kids. Papin put a hold on admissions over a year ago. Though staff was on hand and there was a waiting list, he said he worried that county funding would dry up, given the economy.
The shelter, meanwhile, operates at about 50 percent occupancy. In part, that's because of a change in social service policy. Agencies like Hillsborough Kids Inc., which handles foster placements for DCF, remove children from families only as a last resort. In the last two and a half years, the number of kids in foster care in the county has dropped from over 5,000 to 2,700.
HKI, which places kids in the emergency shelter, also has had some concerns about Papin's operations. In an investigation last spring, HKI took issue with frequent runaways and faulted shelter workers for putting their hands on kids instead of talking their way out of confrontation.
Papin and his second-in-command, Terri Balzer, responded by giving staff training in "verbal de-escalation" techniques.
"You can't just lock and drop the kids anymore," said Balzer. "If their behavior is lethal, then you can use a physical escort. But the emphasis now is on developing a relationship with the child and verbal intervention. Some staffers are having a difficult time making the transition."
Kids were also having a tough time. A spring evaluation of kids discharged from the shelter reached a troubling conclusion: More than half the kids left the facility with worse emotional and behavioral problems than when they entered.
Dr. Charles Furman, a psychologist and clinical director of the county's children's services department, retired this month out of frustration.
"I left because I didn't feel the emergency shelter children were safe," said Furman, who was with the department 10 years. "And they were not following any interventions I initiated to correct those problems."
From May through August, staff continued to document issues, reporting nearly 300 emergency shelter incidents when there were only about 20 emergency shelter residents.
Among the reports:
• Allegations of child-on-child sex in the boys' dorm.
• A female resident picked up at 2:15 a.m. by a man in a car.
• A 14-year-old destroying a computer and punching a supervisor four times in the chest.
• Two sisters who ran 22 times during a two-month stay.
One girl, who had stayed in the shelter seven years ago, went AWOL while staying there this summer, telling an employee, "to see children act like this, cursing and telling staff what they are going to do and not do, is crazy. This place is out of control."
Taking a hands-off approach
Papin, who reports to county commissioners and earned $128,500 last year, emphasized improvements he has made since taking over as head of children's services five years ago.
Time-out rooms were abolished. The average stay in the emergency shelter — intended as a temporary placement — has declined from three years to 250 days. "It was an orphanage," he said. "Kids languished."
Kids still stay far too long. One boy under age 13, taken from his aunt's home after allegations of abuse, has been in the shelter more than three and a half years.
"With a lot of these kids, there aren't magic answers," Papin said.
Papin and Balzer defend the gentler approach by staff, though it has meant more frequent calls to the sheriff for everything from kids fighting over a cookie to boys wielding pool cues.
Referring to the young man who took out his anger on a golf cart and custodian's office in mid October, Papin said, "He cooled down and the staff took him back in and talked to him. I don't want to encourage that behavior, but I think the staff handled it correctly."
Dr. Rausch-Medina, the Tampa psychiatrist, believes the staff's inability to rein in the teen's destructive tantrum illustrates problems at the shelter.
"This hands-off thing for me is hogwash," she said. "If you can hold a kid down appropriately and not hurt him, you're communicating that behavior is not allowed. It's ridiculous to have a child running the facility."
Seeking more customers
With demand down for shelter services, Papin is casting about for new paying customers.
HKI signed a contract last spring to put 12 kids in the under-enrolled Family Treatment program, but hasn't filled the slots. The Department of Juvenile Justice wants to put six more kids on campus; Papin said they could be mixed in with the general population. The county's residential programs also qualified this year as a Medicaid provider, meaning it can bill for therapeutic services.
"Maybe we'll do programs for girls with eating disorders or kids with autism or other disabling conditions," said Papin. "Maybe we'll have a cottage with 17-year-old boys. Kids will be grouped by age, not by program."
Christina Spudeas, executive director of Florida's Children First, a foster care advocacy group, said the concept of grouping kids by age is good, as long as treatment is individualized.
"The downside is not many providers can swoop in with services for the individual child," she said. "I can't imagine the county has the funding to do that."
Touting a clinical staff that includes two psychologists and a dozen therapists providing both inpatient and outpatient care, Papin said, "We're headed toward being a top-notch residential treatment center for children, providing intensive therapy and getting them back home or into the community as rapidly as possible."
That sounds great, said psychiatrist Rausch-Medina. But after seeing Lake Magdalene's programs deteriorate over the past year, she's not convinced the administrators can turn things around.
"They have excellent therapists there, but management has gotten in the way of treatment," she said. "It's not a problem with the people who are there. Management is the problem."
Times researcher Will Gorham contributed to this report. Kris Hundley can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727)892-2996.