TAMPA — The plight of foster children forced to sleep on air mattresses in offices last summer led to outrage and the state ordering additional oversight of Eckerd Kids, the agency that runs child welfare in Hillsborough County.
But even as social workers were preparing the make-do accommodation, records show that between 10 and 21 foster beds went unused at the Lake Magdalene group foster home, a county-owned facility in Carrollwood.
And the foster home remains a thorny issue between Eckerd Kids and county officials who in August agreed to let the nonprofit use two of Lake Magdalene's cottages for hard-to-place foster children ages 10 and older.
Almost one year later, the cottages still sit empty after Eckerd Kids balked at paying the $1.6 million or more it would cost to staff and run the program each year.
That has frustrated county officials who hoped the extra accommodation would ease the strain on the county's existing foster care system.
"We gave them a lifeline to help take care of a serious problem," said Commissioner Sandy Murman, who serves on the county's Blue Ribbon Commission for Child Safety. "I think it's all going down to the bottom line of many providers."
Eckerd Kids officials said that some of the children who slept in offices last summer were not accepted by Lake Magdalene because they were coming out of Department of Juvenile Justice centers or had documented behavioral issues or other problems not compatible with the care programs at the group home.
"Lake Magdalene screened all youth presented and accepted those who they believed to be appropriate for the level of service offered through their program," said Eckerd Kids spokeswoman Adrienne Drew.
Still, county records show the group home had an average of 21 empty beds per night in April, 12 in May and 10 in June, when the agency was struggling to find enough foster beds. Almost 40 foster children slept for one or two nights in unlicensed facilities, including an office and a teen recreation center, over that period.
On 23 acres, Lake Magdalene provides temporary housing for 10- to 17-year-old children who were abused, abandoned or neglected, many of whom have failed multiple placements. First opened in the 1940s, the campus has grown to include cottages for boys and girls with 42 beds, a dining hall, learning center, rec space, job training and administrative offices.
A review of the facility in 2009 found persistent problems with runaways, arrests, drug use and sexual assault, and a state investigation said staffers worried for the safety of the children. Reports also showed many beds often were empty.
The report led to staff shakeups and new leaders there say they have addressed problems head on, with less focus on confinement and more on improving outcomes.
However, vacancies remain.
JoAnn Rollins, the director of Hillsborough County Children's Services, said children are screened before they are placed at Lake Magdalene. If a child presents a risk to other foster children or if the county lacks services that fit the child's needs, the child can be turned away.
"We won't house them like they're sardines, and we won't bring in anybody and just warehouse them," Rollins said.
Eckerd Kids, which is paid $70 million per year by the state to place and care for children in foster and group homes in Hillsborough, pays the county $140 per day for every child it places at Lake Magdalene. The county pays the rest of the $529 daily cost per child, an amount that includes specialists such as psychologists, along with routine caregivers.
The plan to make two cottages available for Eckerd Kids to run was drawn up by county officials, along with the agency and the Children's Board of Hillsborough County.
Eckerd Kids planned to use them for a residential program that would be the first in the state to accept all foster children regardless of any concerns about past delinquency or mental and behavioral health concerns. Violent teens would be required to be assessed by a therapist within 24 hours of admittance.
Eckerd Kids approached Children's Home Network, a Tampa nonprofit group, to run the center.
County commissioners approved the plan in August. The contract with Eckerd Kids gave it sole use of the two cottages rent-free. It would have to pay the county $350 per month to cover utilities.
"We did our part; they're prepared for use," Rollins said.
The contract states that Eckerd Kids would pay for staffing, anticipating a cost of $1.7 million per year.
Yet some six months after the agreement was signed, Children's Home told Eckerd Kids it was still hiring staffers, according to Eckerd Kids.
Shortly after, Eckerd Kids told Children's Home that it could not afford to run the program and planned to contact the Florida Department of Children and Families to seek additional funding.
Eckerd Kids is now working with another nonprofit agency, Youth and Family Alternatives, to work out a more "cost effective" plan for the cottages.
Rollins said only Eckerd Kids can explain why the cottages still sit empty. More children are taken into foster care in Hillsborough than any other Florida county. In 2016, child protection investigators at the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office received more than 16,700 reports of abuse or neglect. They resulted in 1,592 children being taken into care.
"Everything is a work in progress," Rollins said. "Hillsborough County as a whole is going to have to look at how it is coordinating care."
Contact Christopher O'Donnell at email@example.com or (813) 226-3446. Follow @codonnell_Times.