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Clearwater nonprofit gives up $6.6 million foster contract, blasts lack of funding for child welfare

Directions for Living says case managers were overburdened and child welfare system ‘remains in crisis.’

TAMPA — The Clearwater nonprofit fired from a foster-care contract in Pinellas two weeks ago is walking away from a similar $6.6 million contract in Hillsborough County, citing concerns that its case managers are overburdened.

Directions for Living confirmed this week that it is ending its contract to provide case management services in Hillsborough County, where it was sub-contracted to handle the cases of more than 630 families.

Directions President and CEO April Lott said in a statement that her agency’s involvement had become “untenable” because of "gross under-funding of programs needed to keep foster children safe.''

April Lott, president and CEO of Directions for Living, said case managers were overburdened with too many children because of a lack of funding in the child welfare system. [DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Tampa Bay Times]

“The most frustrating result of the under-funding is asking our committed case managers to undertake double or even triple the appropriate amount of cases — which is neither safe nor sustainable,” Lott said. “Despite repeated requests for more funding, oversight, advocacy, and support, the child welfare system remains in crisis.”

Directions’ decision represents more upheaval in Hillsborough’s troubled foster care system. The non-profit was awarded the contract less than two years ago by lead foster agency Eckerd Connects after Eckerd fired another sub-contractor, Youth and Family Alternatives.

Chris Card, Eckerd Connects’ chief of community-based care, said he did not know if Directions’ decision was linked to it losing a similar contract in Pinellas County last month. Directions had provided case management services in Pinellas for at least 15 years but had struggled to recruit and retain case managers and supervisors, Card said at the time.

“We made it clear with them that we wanted them to stay (in Hillsborough) and provide the services,” Card said Friday. “They took this upon themselves.”

Chris Card, Eckerd Connects chief of community based care.

Card said that high turnover of case managers had led to the heavy caseloads in Hillsborough cited by Directions. Newly hired case managers spend their first few months in a classroom. Then they are given a handful of cases and supervised closely until they demonstrate they can handle the work and take on more.

“That means the guys who have been here for awhile have to carry more cases,” Card said.

Directions officials did not respond to requests for more information on their statement.

Eckerd Connects plans to conduct an emergency bid process to find one or more agencies to replace Directions, Card said.

All existing case managers, supervisors and support staff will be offered a job, a step intended to ensure no loss of continuity in the handling of children’s cases.

“These are always very delicate processes to make sure none of the kids fall through the cracks and maintain the staff as best we can,” Card said.

Eckerd Connects, which is also the lead foster agency for Pinellas and Pasco counties, has struggled over the past three years to cope with the constant influx of traumatized kids in Hillsborough, where more children are removed than any other county in Florida.

A state-ordered review of the foster care system in 2018 by a panel of experts found as many as 35 children regularly have no permanent foster or group home. Some end up sleeping in offices and other unlicensed facilities. It led the Florida Department of Children and Families to threaten to fire Eckerd Connects if it can’t fix the system.

Card said those problems were the result of several years where the number of children removed was well above the state average.

“We’re still trying to recover from that,” he said.

Eckerd Connects is also pushing a proposal for a new law dealing with children who refuse placements. It would allow a judge to order them into placements — including a secure facility at a Tampa juvenile justice campus — for up to 90 days.