TAMPA — With three months still left in its fiscal year, the agency that runs foster care in Hillsborough County says it is facing a $4.1 million shortfall and wants the state to help.
Eckerd Connects announced the deficit at a meeting of its board Tuesday. Officials are blaming a 44 percent rise in the number of children in care over the past three years, which they say is the result of the state's opioid epidemic and high rates of domestic abuse.
"This has been sustained for the last three years," said Lorita Shirley, the agency's chief of community based care. "If this is our new norm, then funding must follow."
The Florida Department of Children and Families does maintain an "emergency pool" fund for lead child welfare agencies that experience a sharp rise in the number of children being taken into foster care. Eckerd Connects requested $3.4 million but was only awarded an extra $169,000 this year.
The shortfall will not mean any cuts in services, the agency said, and it is applying to Bank of America for a line of credit in case additional state funding does not come through.
More money for Eckerd could come from the 2018-19 appropriations bill making its way through the Florida Legislature. "Back of the bill" funds, as they are known, could be made available as early as April or May, ahead of the next fiscal year.
DCF spokeswoman Jessica Sims said the state has boosted funding for child welfare agencies over the past few years.
"DCF remains committed to ensuring that every community has the resources they need to protect the vulnerable and help families recover," she said.
Eckerd Connects has come under increased scrutiny as it has struggled to cope with caring for the state's highest foster child population. Earlier this month it fired Youth and Family Alternatives from a $9.2 million contract after finding a pattern of case managers leaving older foster children unattended.
A shortage of foster beds also led to children sleeping in unlicensed facilities including an office and a teen recreation center in 2016.
As a result, DCF's contract oversight unit is monitoring the performance of child welfare agencies in Hillsborough, and its Inspector General's office is conducting a review into how agencies report child data, Sims said.
DCF has also assembled a team of nine child welfare experts to identify "systemic issues" with the county's foster system.
A main focus of the review is going to be why Hillsborough — Florida's fourth most populous county — has more children in the foster care system than any other county.
At the end of 2017, some 2,437 Hillsborough children were either in foster homes or with relatives because of concerns about abuse or neglect. That's up from 1,692 in 2014.
That 44 percent increase is well above the state average of 23 percent over the same period.
Hillsborough is one of only six counties where investigations into potential child abuse and neglect are handled by the local sheriff's office. The others are Broward, Manatee, Pinellas, Pasco and Seminole.
In its application for emergency pool funds, Eckerd Connects stated that the additional children meant it had to hire 30 extra case managers to avoid existing staff being over burdened.
"There is something very unique and challenging that requires a lot more focusing in the system of care," Shirley said.
Hillsborough is not helped by an arcane state funding formula that agencies requested so they would not lose money even when they care for fewer kids.
The "hold-harmless" rule meant Hillsborough was short-changed about $6 million this year while Our Kids, the lead care agency for Miami-Dade and Monroe counties, received almost $20 million more than it would have based on its number of kids.
Funding and Hillsborough's surging foster child population create a challenge, acknowledged Roy Miller, president and founder of the Children's Campaign, a Tallahassee non-profit group.
But he said Eckerd Connects wastes money on exorbitant salaries for its executives and does not hold them accountable when failures in the foster care system come to light.
The most recent IRS filing for Eckerd Connects shows that Shirley earns $213,000 per year.
"They're asking the community for help for what they now report is financial hardship on top of complete unaccountability for the welfare of the children," Miller said. "They seem completely insensitive to community opinion about their performance."
Contact Christopher O'Donnell at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 226-3446. Follow @codonnell_Times.