(WFLA) – Last week, Lorita Shirley, the top manager at Eckerd Connects denied she had prior knowledge of the foster care failures we exposed in an 8 On Your Side investigation.
Earlier this month, our investigation revealed foster kids were being warehoused in at a Wawa gas station parking lot on Waters Ave. in Tampa. Now it turns out Shirley had been forewarned five times since November but did nothing to stop the practice.
On Nov. 15, Shirley, Eckerd’s chief of Community-Based Care learned foster kids had been confined to caseworkers’ cars at the gas station. That was three months before we exposed the problem.
Shirley, and other Eckerd staff members, along with managers at Youth and Family Alternatives, the contractor hired by Eckerd to provide caseworkers for foster kids, received the same tips we were getting. In fact, some of those tips were our tips.
Our online tip system sends automated responses to anyone who fills out a form and supplies an email address. In the case of the foster kids, anonymous tipsters-almost certainly caseworkers employed by YFA-were complaining about having to babysit foster kids night and day at the Wawa station because YFA managers had banned some of the teens from their offices. Some of the tips said foster kids were sleeping in cars.
On the WFLA.com contact form, the anonymous tipster gave us Shirley’s e-mail and other managers’ information, so the tips automatically bounced back to them.
The DCF and the YFA email addresses also appeared in the tips, but none of these agencies took any action despite receiving at least five warnings about the problem.
On January 22, three weeks before our first report, Shirley wrote a private email to DCF Regional Director Jennifer Kuhn, alerting her of the latest tip to News Channel 8 about kids at the Wawa station.
“Please find referenced below another email that was sent anonymously to Channel 8-WFLA about kids sleeping at WAWA and not having placement,” Shirley wrote.
She then goes on to discredit the tip: “John Luff from YFA just notified me verbally and shared that there is no validity to any of these allegations,” she added.
The same day we starting asking Eckerd questions about warehousing kids at Wawa, panic set in. Shirley emailed the head of YFA President Mark Wickham saying, “Mark, we have a media situation unfolding with Mark Douglas that requires immediate attention. Please call me or have your PIO call me.”
Three weeks later, at a public forum, Shirley denied knowing anything about the Wawa kids until our story broke February 6. “What I can say very definitively is that Eckerd was not aware,” Shirley told us.” We were blindsided by the fact kids weren’t attending school during the day and spending their days at Wawa absolutely.”
If Shirley or anyone else at Eckerd had bothered to look into the issue, they would have seen what we did every time we looked during a month of surveillance. We saw foster kids confined to cars day and night, week after week in that Wawa parking lot located about a mile from the YFA offices.
The anonymous News Channel 8 emails Shirley was seeing-at least five of them in November, January and February-were almost certainly written by YFA staff members who were crying for help and afraid to complain their own supervisors. They were detailed and contained information only an insider would know.
The same day we broke the story on February 6, Eckerd fired YFA, citing the abandonment of a teen foster child unrelated to the Wawa situation. Eckerd later said that foster child also told them about being kept at Wawa due to a lack of foster home placements for troubled teens. DCF Secretary Mike Carroll intervened and formed a team of experts for a top to bottom review of foster care in Hillsborough.
In response to our repeated questions about what Shirley and other Eckerd managers knew about the Wawa situation, when they knew it and why they failed to act, Eckerd spokesman Doug Tobin released the following statement: “We will be working closely with DCF and their child welfare experts from around the state to independently review challenges in the Hillsborough County foster care system and follow through with any recommendations to help improve the system of care.”
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