TAMPA – In the world of foster care, they're known as "night-to-night" placements.
The sadder every-day translation? Foster children with no place to go.
Florida Department of Children and Families Secretary Mike Carroll said Monday that as many as 38 Hillsborough children have fit that description over the past six months.
They are what remains after group foster homes "pick and choose" the children most likely to do well, he said. Homes can be selective because the county's need for foster beds is often unmet. But it means that finding a bed for older, troubled teens can be a daily struggle for case managers, who wind up booking accommodations a night at a time.
The situation drew attention recently after teens were discovered spending the night in a car at a gas station, with no place else to go.
Carroll is asking a special team of child welfare experts to find out why.
His review of Hillsborough's overburdened foster care system began in earnest Monday as a 10-member team met with executives from local child welfare agencies and other foster care workers at a DCF office on Florida Avenue in Tampa.
Carroll told the group he wants them to get to the bottom of what happened to these children and to figure out why the county's foster care system is over burdened.
Hillsborough has more children in foster care than any other Florida county, despite its No. 4 ranking in population.
"This system is the biggest in the state and we need to find out why," Carroll told the meeting. "If we don't fix some of the systemic issues we're going to be right back here six months from now."
Carroll assembled the team after Eckerd Connects, the county's lead agency, fired nonprofit group Youth and Family Alternatives from a $9.2 million contract last month after finding a pattern of older foster teens being left unsupervised.
Eckerd Connects reported the agency to the state abuse hotline and to the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office, which is investigating.
Carroll said child protective investigators from the Sheriff's Office have interviewed about 50 kids and will talk to another 100 to develop a fuller picture of how children have been treated.
The scrutiny of Hillsborough's foster care system doesn't end there.
DCF has also asked its inspector general's office to conduct an audit after it emerged that the failure to place some children was not reflected in reports to the state. Eckerd was ordered in November to report any time a child slept in an unlicensed facility.
It's mostly older teens that child welfare workers have struggled to place. Some of them have refused to attend school or to go to foster homes. The group includes children with extreme behavioral issues and criminal records and those in foster care because their parents said they could no longer control them.
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"We need to get them into some kind of more structured therapeutic group care," Carroll said.
"You have so many kids in care in this circuit that group care (homes) get to pick and choose who they take, and they're going to take kids that they think they'll be successful with, so you're left with this small group of kids that then become very challenging."
The decision to fire YFA from its Hillsborough contract led to something of a public disagreement.
Eckerd Connects officials said the agency made poor decisions in its handling of older teens.
But YFA officials pointed out that while they provide case management, Eckerd Connects is in charge of placement. YFA staff was left to care for kids for whom there was no accommodation.
Carroll said the community needs to move past that and focus on working with the review team on a plan to improve foster care.
"We have to deal with the finger-pointing right now because it's where we're at," Carroll said. "At the end of the day, we're all responsible for this system of care."
Nick Cox, a statewide prosecutor and a former DCF regional director, attended the public meeting Monday. He said the complex structure of child welfare made up of a lead agency and several subcontractors and providers has made it tougher to hold people accountable.
State lawmakers privatized child welfare over a period of several years through 2005. Prior to that it was run by DCF at both state and local level.
"Back in the day, they held everything and accountability was very clear," he said. "When you have so many agencies it's all diluted and who do we hold responsible?"
Contact Christopher O'Donnell at email@example.com or (813) 226-3446. Follow @codonnell_Times