TAMPA — The two cottages were to be a place for child welfare's toughest population: troubled older teens with histories of multiple arrests, school suspensions and anger at what life has dealt them.
Unable to place them in regular foster homes, Eckerd Connects last summer struck a deal with Hillsborough County to use the cottages in the Lake Magdalene group foster home in Carrollwood. It then hired Truecore Behavioral Solutions to care for the teens.
The plan was to run a "no-reject/no-eject" program. Truecore could not refuse to take anyone no matter how troubled their history. Nor could it ask for a child to be removed.
But the program barely lasted a month before it was quietly shelved in November after the teens were blamed for a rash of break-ins in nearby homes, according to Hillsborough County Commissioner Sandy Murman.
"The kids were extremely disruptive; they were leaving the cottages and breaking into homes in the neighborhood," Murman said. "Eckerd wasn't making any changes to help remedy the situation so we had to end the program."
The failure is another setback for Eckerd Connects, which in recent years has struggled to find foster homes and provide adequate supervision for older teens. Earlier this week, the state initiated a review of the county's foster care system after a local child welfare agency subcontracted by Eckerd Connects was fired from a $9.2 million contract for leaving older teens unsupervised.
The contract with Truecore was supposed to run through June 2019 and paid $410 per day per child to staff the six-bed cottages. Truecore was also to provide evening and weekend security mandated by the county since the teens would be sharing a campus with a county-run group foster home.
It's unclear who made the decision to scrap the program.
Truecore informed Eckerd Connects and county officials in a November email that it was pulling out of the contract. "Unfortunately, the environment to support the youth that were being admitted to the program was not sufficient to handle their significant needs," wrote Lisa Tackus, chief operating officer.
But officials from Eckerd Connects said the decision was mutual.
"Eckerd Connects tried to create a no eject/reject placement, but all parties mutually agreed the provider was not in a position to handle these children," said spokesman Doug Tobin in a statement.
Murman, who serves on the county's Blue Ribbon Commission for Child Safety, said Eckerd Connects had shown only lukewarm enthusiasm for the program.
The cottages had sat empty for almost a year after Eckerd had signed an initial contract with the county in 2016. That was despite a shortage of foster beds earlier that year that resulted in almost 40 children sleeping on air mattresses in unlicensed facilities, including an office and a teen recreation center.
And Murman said the Children's Home Network had a better proposal for the teens that included extensive counseling but Eckerd Connects went for a cheaper option.
"When you have a provider that knows how to do this you have to take advantage of that and cost should not be the issue," she said. "I'm not sure how serious they were about trying to solve the situation they had."
Eckerd officials said they chose Truecore because The Children's Home Network did not have an extensive history with children involved in the juvenile delinquency system.
"We were looking for a provider with both extensive history working with delinquency and the child welfare system," Tobin said.
Irene Rickus, president and CEO of the Children's Home Network, declined to comment on the failure of the program. She said troubled teens are a challenge for every child welfare professional. The best solution may be finding relatives that can raise them, she said.
"Institutions don't raise kids, families raise kids," she said. "Finding extended family that can take the children in, and with therapy and other supportive services, we believe it can help many of those children settle down."
Contact Christopher O'Donnell at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 226-3446. Follow @codonnell_Times