TAMPA — Even as Eckerd Connects works its way through a state-ordered plan to address failures in foster care, children under its watch are still sleeping in offices.
Thirteen Hillsborough County foster children slept for a total of 22 nights in offices this month because child welfare workers could not find them foster beds for the night, agency officials said.
That is despite moves by Eckerd Connects to provide better care for traumatized teens who refuse to go to group homes, including the creation of a 24/7 mental-health crisis team.
The agency, which contracts with the state to run the foster care system in Hillsborough, is also struggling to fill case manager positions. Almost 50 out of 193 positions remain unfilled. As a result, almost 75 case managers have a caseload of more than 25 children.
State law mandates that the Florida Department of Children and Families provide funding enough so case managers are responsible for no more than 19 children.
The struggle by Eckerd Connects to find longer-term homes for older foster children led the state to convene a panel of 10 child welfare experts in February to identify issues in the county's foster care system. The panel issued a scathing review, showing special concern for children who have been moved from home to home and often lack access to laundry, hygiene products and nutritious or home-cooked food. There were 35 of these children at the time of the evaluation.
Eckerd Connects has already adopted many of the recommendations made by the panel, chief of community care Chris Card said at a review meeting Wednesday that marked the end of the panel's work.
Thirty new foster families have been recruited and more training is under way in how to deal with severely traumatized children. Group foster homes have added 10 foster beds and 27 case managers are currently undergoing training, which will help reduce caseloads once they assume full duties, he said.
Children who refuse placements now are assigned a mentor, a guardian ad litem court representative, and mental health case managers to make sure they get proper counseling and treatment. When children are moved to a new foster home, they are now being told why the previous placement didn't work out.
"There's a lot of good things going on here," said Card, who was hired by Eckerd in May to fix the county's foster care issues. "I'm confident we're going to be the pride of Florida within a period of time."
But Card still faces big challenges.
Hillsborough children investigated as possible victims of abuse or neglect are 40 percent more likely to be removed from their homes than in other counties. Eckerd Connects is spending more than $60,000 per day caring for more than 1,200 children in either foster homes or group homes. In all, some 3,300 children are under the care of case managers.
The DCF panel conducted more than 140 interviews and analyzed reams of reports, said panel member Lee Kaywork, a retired CEO of Family Support Services of North Florida.
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He said Eckerd Connects' problems have been compounded by a high turnover of staff but that the agency appears to be headed in the right direction.
"The report speaks to itself for the kinds of things we saw," he said. "The reality of the situation is the world of child welfare is complex."
Contact Christopher O'Donnell at email@example.com or (813) 226-3446. Follow @codonnell_Times.