DCF talks with Tampa Bay foster parents who are vigilant about protecting children

8 On Your Side

TAMPA, Fla. (WFLA) – A Tampa foster mother is “heartbroken” after finding out the infant she raised for the first year of their life had “seriously injuries” after an attempt to reunify the child with a birth parent.

Denise Robinson said that case revealed one of the weaknesses in the Tampa Bay area child welfare system that is on the cusp of getting a new lead agency for the first time in more than a decade.

Eckerd Connects was paid about $80 million from the state this year but both the agency and the Florida Department of Children and Family said they decided to allow two contracts to expire, prompting expected changes for the care of about 6,600 children in Hillsborough, Pinellas and Pasco counties.

Robinson became a foster parent for the first time about 15 years ago when she took in a teenager. Robinson, who’s also a social worker, said the girl grew into a biological child over the years.

“She’s my daughter,” Robinson said. “Her children are my grandchildren.”

Robinson started fostering children again about three years ago, and it was a placement earlier this year that troubles her. The child was a newborn when placed with Robinson, who fully understood reunification with the mother was the goal.

“We understand reunification,” Robinson said. “And we want that too, but we want it to be done safely.”

For her now-former foster child, that happened last month. But a phone call let Robinson know there was a problem.

“Marks, bruises all over his body,” Robinson said, in tears. “And he’s a little boy. He didn’t do anything to deserve this. He didn’t ask for any of this. So, it bothers me that there were so many red flags. They did not pay attention to that.”

Robinson tells 8 On Your Side that while she was caring for the infant, the state investigated her after she reported he came back from a weekend visit with a bruise on his cheek.

“That did not happen at my home,” Robinson said. “I reported it and they pointed the finger at me.”

DCF could not offer any details on the case due to privacy laws.

Robinson and other foster parents and children have told 8 On Your Side that poor oversight in the child welfare system has been on ongoing problem.

DCF Secretary Shevaun Harris talked with foster parents on Monday afternoon in a conference call that lasted about an hour. Foster parents who participated said there was time for roughly 10 questions that included concerns about licensing, case managers, accountability for the new agency and communication with foster parents about the specific needs of the children.

Robinson said she was one of at least 10 foster parents on the call who seemed to have a common goal to be part of the solution.

“That’s what I want the secretary to hear from us when we speak – we are not just glorified babysitters,” Robinson said. “We are actually people who love these kids.”

Foster parent Joshua Nwajei also participated in the teleconference, but called it “rushed.”

“It felt like a lot of the call was about blaming Eckerd but not truly looking at all the layers of issues,” Nwajei said. “The next agency is supposed to be inclusive and partner with foster parents, but it seems like smoke and mirrors.”

The DCF did not immediately respond to a request by 8 On Your Side to listen in on the teleconference.

The department has not said how many agencies bid on the Pinellas-Pasco contract that is set to expire Dec. 31. In a statement last week, Eckerd said it was the only bidder.

The Hillsborough County contract runs through June 30, 2022. Eckerd has served Pinellas-Pasco since 2008 and Hillsborough since 2012.

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