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Child welfare agency under fire unveils plan to fix Hillsborough's foster care woes

Eckerd Connects has submitted a corrective action plan to the state of Florida in response to failures in its Hillsborough County foster-care system. [Courtesy of Eckerd Connects]
Eckerd Connects has submitted a corrective action plan to the state of Florida in response to failures in its Hillsborough County foster-care system. [Courtesy of Eckerd Connects]
Published Jul. 3, 2018

TAMPA — Even as it unveiled its plan to address foster care failures in Hillsborough County, Eckerd Connects acknowledged this week that some teens are still sleeping in offices.

Chief of Community Care Chris Card told Eckerd Connects board members that the agency was forced to house a handful of teenagers in agency offices not licensed for foster care.

"Most of the time it's because they refused to go to their placement or they disrupt in the wee hours of the morning," Card said. "It's much rarer than it has been and we continue to make progress."

A long-running failure by Eckerd Connects to find longer-term homes for older foster children led the state earlier this month to warn the non-profit that it could be fired from its contract.

PREVIOUS COVERAGE State threatens to fire Eckerd Connects over Hillsborough foster care failings

The warning came after a panel of 10 child welfare experts issued a scathing review of the system, especially the plight of about 35 children who are moved from home to home and often lack access to laundry, hygiene products and nutritious or home-cooked food.

As ordered by the state, Eckerd Connects on Friday sent a corrective action plan to the Florida Department of Children and Families.

The non-profit agency has already adopted some of the fixes it proposes. They include:

• Creation of a 24/7 mental health crisis response team.

• Partnering with the Children's Home Society of Florida to provide therapeutic help to troubled children who have refused placements.

• Adding two foster group homes and training eight foster parents to handle more challenging older children.

• For children who refuse placements, assigning a mentor, a guardian ad litem court representative, and mental health case managers to make sure they get proper counseling and treatment.

"That increases the eyes on that child and the opportunity to engage that child," Card said.

The report on Hillsborough foster care found that children are 40 percent more likely to be removed from parents in Hillsborough County than statewide even though the county has a lower rate of calls to the state's abuse hotline.

And once in foster care, too many children are still stuck in the system one year later instead of being reunited with their parents or adopted, the report says.

To tackle that, Eckerd Connects plans to try keeping more children with their parents. When child welfare investigators are unsure if it's safe to leave a child, a review will be conducted within 24 hours by a team that includes a therapist, a case manager, the investigator and a guardian ad litem.

Another approach to prevent removal of children will be to get family members, relatives and friends together to come up with a plan to care for the children.

Hillsborough is one of about half a dozen among Florida's 67 counties where the local sheriff's office investigates reports of abuse or neglect and make the immediate decision whether to remove a child. In other counties, the decision is made by local DCF staff.

More than 3,500 Hillsborough children are either in foster care or at risk of being removed from their homes. The number of children removed has risen 42 percent since 2013. Most removals involve substance or domestic abuse.

"Just because we're taking more kids into care doesn't mean that's wrong necessarily," Card said.

Other proposals in the Eckerd Connects plan include more targeted recruitment of foster parents, a focus on finding foster parents who want to care for older teens, and finding a single agency to manage the licensing of foster care homes. Licensing currently is done by seven different providers.

A separate review on whether Eckerd Connects misled the state about the number of children who slept in offices or other unlicensed places was conducted by DCF's Office of Inspector General.

It found that staff sometimes recorded those accommodations as "other," meaning they were never reported to the state. The agency will amend its reporting procedures, the plan states.

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.

Eckerd Connects now must get feedback and have its plan vetted by partner child welfare agencies by July 15.

Contact Christopher O'Donnell at codonnell@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3446. Follow @codonnell_Times.

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