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Nonprofit admits more children in state care were forced to sleep in offices than previously acknowledged

The Devereux office off Fowler Avenue in Tampa is one of the locations used as sleeping quarters for foster children.
Published Jul. 20, 2016

TAMPA — Air mattresses placed on office floors served as make-do sleeping quarters for dozens of Hillsborough County foster children, a crisis that the contractor responsible for taking care of the children repeatedly failed to report to the state.

The Clearwater nonprofit Eckerd Kids had 43 children sleep in offices and other unlicensed locations in the past 18 months because it could not place them in foster homes, an internal Eckerd report released Tuesday states.

The crisis came to a head during a three-month period ending in June when 38 children spent up to three nights in offices and a teen recreation center — more than twice as many children as Eckerd officials initially reported to the Florida Department of Children and Families.

Six of the children were 10 years old or younger. One was just 4.

DCF Secretary Mike Carroll said the department has deployed an oversight team to conduct daily monitoring and onsite visits of Eckerd to ensure there is no repeat of the recent problems.

"Eckerd's inappropriate placement of these children, and other failure to report these incidents, is inexcusable and absolutely unacceptable," Carroll said in a statement.

Eckerd is paid $70 million annually from its contract with DCF.

Its procedures required staff to report to Eckerd's director of out-of-home care, an executive director and to the chief of operations when a foster bed could not be found for a child.

It also required them to report the case to DCF within 24 hours.

Sometimes, only some of the officials were notified, the report found. Sometimes, no one was told.

As a result of those failures, Rachel Smith, the executive director of Eckerd's Community Alternatives program, resigned her position Tuesday, Eckerd officials said.

Smith, who did not return calls seeking comment, was scheduled to be appointed by Hillsborough County commissioners today to the Blue Ribbon Commission for Child Safety in Hills­borough County. Her name was withdrawn from the agenda on Tuesday.

Eckerd's report also reveals the housing crisis dates back to July 2015, when five children over five nights slept in offices.

Makeshift accommodation was needed this year, Eckerd officials said, because of a spike in the number of children being taken into care in April and May.

The decision to remove kids is made by the Child Protective Investigative Division, a unit of the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office. The children are frequently traumatized because of issues like abuse, neglect or domestic violence.

The division removed roughly 180 children in both April and May compared to 116 in March and 115 in June.

In the 12-month period ending June 30, 1,672 children were taken into care in Hillsborough, the highest of any Florida county.

Sheriff's officials earlier this month said there was no change in criteria that investigators use when deciding whether to take children out of their homes. The spike was a result of more cases being referred from the Florida Abuse Hotline.

In most cases, children only slept one or two nights in offices before being placed. In addition to air mattresses, blankets and pillows were always supplied. Dinner was brought in for the children and there was trained adult supervision throughout their stay, Eckerd officials said.

Eckerd released the internal review after public record requests were made to review Eckerd's communication with DCF by both the Tampa Bay Times and Florida's Children First, a statewide advocacy organization focused on children's rights.

Florida Children's First executive director Christina Spudeas said Eckerd could have found appropriate places for children if its staff had followed its rules.

Sleeping in an office would have felt like another rejection for children already traumatized from being taken from their homes because of issues like abuse, neglect or domestic violence, she said.

"It's appalling they didn't follow the procedures already in place," she said. "Placing child in an office where you don't have a living room, a bedroom, a caregiver has a negative impact on a child's psyche."

Eckerd also handles foster placement in Pasco and Pinellas counties, a contract worth about $65 million per year.

Officials said they have adopted new procedures to ensure there is no repeat of the failure.

That includes additional training of staff who were also required to sign an policy verifying they understand the protocol. They will also compile a critical incident report whenever a child ends up sleeping in an office.

Recent efforts to encourage more parents to foster children has increased the number of beds in the county by 72, said Terri Durdaller, Eckerd spokeswoman.

"Ultimately, Eckerd Kids is responsible and accountable to ensure accuracy in all aspects of its work in support of the child welfare system and apologize for the confusion this error has caused," Durdaller said of the group's initial reports. "We believe it is unacceptable for even one child to sleep in an unlicensed placement and we are committed to providing an appropriate, home-like setting for every child who enters our care."

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

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