TAMPA, Fla. (WFLA) — One day after DCF Secretary Mike Carroll promised to reform foster care in Hillsborough County, three foster teens spent the night sleeping in Tampa child welfare offices instead of a home.
“Eckerd doesn’t condone nor do we believe any kid should ever sleep in an office setting,” said Eckerd Connects’ top foster care executive Lorita Shirley.
DCF Spokeswoman Jessica Simms released a statement late Tuesday that read:
Based on a report we received from Eckerd, three youths had a foster home to stay in last night but placement was disrupted due to behavior issues or outright placement refusal. We are continuing to hold Eckerd accountable to ensure every child in their care has proper placement. The review team we launched will be looking into this.”
In one sense, couch surfing in offices is an improvement from recent months when we discovered that foster teens repeatedly slept in caseworkers’ cars in a gas station parking lot, a Dollar General store and other “safe and brightly lit” locations. They also spent their daytime hours there instead of attending school or therapy. In some instances, caseworkers simply gave them bus passes and turned them loose without any supervision during the day.
On Monday, DCF Secretary Mike Carroll introduced a ten-member panel of child welfare experts who just arrived in Tampa for a top to bottom review of Hillsborough’s foster care system. They’re trying to determine why the system fails to provide basic needs – like shelter – for Hillsborough foster kids time and again.
Twelve hours after that meeting, we found one foster teen trying to sleep on a couch that was clearly too small in the lobby of Youth and Family Alternatives.
“It’s about time somebody knew the truth,” the girl told us Tuesday afternoon. while still confined in the same office.
The girl says she refused to go to a foster home Monday night because caseworkers wanted to take away her cellphone. Shirley says the girl actually refused two placements, and caseworkers could not force her – the same reason she missed school Tuesday.
She is one of more than three dozen foster kids in Hillsborough who go night to night without knowing where they will sleep or if they will have a placement in a foster home.
“It’s not fair for us to have to sit there until whenever time, God knows when – 12, one o’clock in the morning, two o’clock, three o’clock – just for somebody to decide we can come to their house, just for them to open up a space in their house,” the girl said.
It turned out, she was the same girl we saw sitting in caseworkers’ cars at a Wawa gas station week after week without attending school, therapy or being in a home.
“It’s a waiting game,” the girl said. “That’s what foster care is, a waiting game.”
By 2 p.m. Tuesday, she was still waiting in the YFA offices and came outside with the intention of telling us her story despite the discouragement of a caseworker.
“They gotta know, Miss,” the girl told her caseworker. “This can’t be a secret.”
Two other Hillsborough foster kids – managed by two other case management organizations hired by Eckerd – also slept in offices Monday night. Shirley says that’s because they got into a fight in a foster home and a foster parent had to call police.
That may sound like Shirley is blaming the kids, but Shirley insists she’s not.
“I want to assure you, under no circumstances do we believe any of these problems are the fault of our children,” Shirley said.
Whatever the reason, the problem of foster kids sleeping in offices was supposed to end two years ago when 8 On Your Side first uncovered that problem and DCF stepped in to demand more accountability.
But the deluge of foster kids just keeps growing. Hillsborough has more foster kids than any other county in Florida and takes kids away from parents at the highest rate in the state.
Most of them have stable placements but as we’ve seen all too frequently, some do not. The girl we kept seeing at the Wawa and then again sleeping in the YFA offices Monday night says if she could speak to DCF Secretary Mike Carroll, this is what she’d tell him: “Something’s gotta give, you gotta do better for foster kids.”