CLEARWATER, Fla. (WFLA) — Living alone in mangroves under the Bayside Bridge in Clearwater among mosquitos and snakes was a better option than foster care, according to Jason Pisani, who said he ran away when he was 12.
Eckerd Connects and the Florida Department of Children and Families recently agreed to allow two child welfare contracts involving three Tampa Bay area counties to expire, ending a relationship marred by issues including children sleeping in offices and waiting long hours in cars for foster home placements.
8 On Your Side exposed many of those problems and prompted Eckerd to terminate a key subcontractor, but the issues have continued.
Pisani, now 18, said his time in foster care began when he was about 9 years old and involved several “horrible placements,” including a short stint with an adoptive family.
“He started hitting me,” Pisani said. “I wasn’t good enough, I guess. The mom didn’t do anything.”
DCF removed him from that home, Pisani said, and a short time later he was living with a foster family that he thought met his needs.
“When the lady from the state came to take me to another home [on a court order,] I didn’t want to go,” Pisani said. “I just ran away. I ran through the mud. I cut a place in the mangroves with a pocketknife and hid.”
He said he lived in the wild for about three days until he heard his foster mother yelling for him, saying the judge had rescinded the order. Pisani stayed in that foster home until he recently aged out of the system when he turned 18. But he said the damage was done.
“The system is broken. The children are just numbers and they push so hard for adoption, even if it isn’t a good fit,” Pisani said. “When I was in the mangroves, I asked myself, ‘why is this happening to me? Why don’t I get a choice?'”
An 8 On Your Side investigation in March revealed office placements were still used by Eckerd and, more recently, a desperate message to foster parents indicated there are still too many children and not enough beds.
“Unfortunately, we are back to having a staggering amount of kids that are in need of placements,” an Eckerd staff member wrote in the message. “We are so desperate, that even if you could help with a placement on a couch or air mattress, it’s something we would like to discuss.”
An on-camera interview with Eckerd’s chief of community based care was canceled this week after the state and the agency announced the current contracts in Pasco, Pinellas and Hillsborough would not be renewed. The agreement in Pasco and Pinellas end on December 31. The one in Hillsborough runs through the end of June.
Eckerd’s former leader Chris Card talked in March about the challenges the agency faces.
“These kids are coming to us with some serious problems and trauma,” Card said. “We have limited resources in what we can invest in but we’re doing everything we can do.”
Few disagree with Card for blaming limited resources for the variety of issues in the bay area child welfare system.
Although last month, the state Inspector General alleged Card’s annual salary of just under $240,000 was about $24,000 over the cap for state-contracted social service agency executives. Eckerd countered the state’s claim by pointing out that Card managed lead agencies in Judicial Circuit 6 and 13 and was paid separate salaries for each contract.
“His total salary was apportioned evenly between two contracts and was well within state limits,” a statement from Eckerd said.
No matter what’s to blame, Pisani said he came forward hoping to expose the damage of what he claims was abusive treatment.
“I hate myself. I think I’m a horrible person. I’m too violent. I’m too angry. I lash out at everybody. I can’t help it,” Pisani said. “Hopefully with the change coming to the foster care system, the kids won’t have to suffer like I did.”