HILLSBOROUGH COUNTY, Fla. (WFLAA) – DCF Secretary Mike Carroll brought a team of experts to Tampa on Monday to find out what’s ailing Hillsborough County’s troubled foster care system, and right from the start, they heard plenty at a forum open to the public. 

“Everybody’s changing employment constantly. It’s just a turnover and I think it’s a grave turnover that shouldn’t be happening,” said Danny Strickland, the grandfather of a foster child.

Statewide Prosecutor Nick Cox used to run DCF’s regional office and said there are too many different agencies delivering services.

“When you have so many different agencies DCF contracts with, somebody who contract with somebody else, who potentially contracts with somebody else, it’s all diluted and who do we really hold responsible,” Cox said.

Former foster child Hope Austrie pleaded with Carroll to fix the problems for the sake of kids like her.

“You’re not only our case managers but you’re our family,” Austrie said.

Carroll held an opening session of his 10 member team at DCF’s Suncoast District offices in Tampa to explain they are here not to point fingers, but to pinpoint systematic failures that need corrected.

Carroll says Hillsborough takes children away from parents at a higher rate than any other county in Florida and has more kids, nearly 4000, in its foster care system than any other part of the state.

That’s the back drop for the current crisis sparked by our Rides to Nowhere investigation, where we discovered foster kids held in caseworkers’ cars in a Wawa parking lot week after week, day and night instead of going to school, therapy or a foster home.

“This group is really going to answer the question, ‘why did this happen,'” Carroll said.8 On Your Side Rides to Nowhere investigation first exposed problems

Eckerd Connects is the lead agency for foster care in Hillsborough and contracts out services to other organizations like Youth and Family Alternatives. After we documented YFA caseworkers keeping kids at the Wawa station, Eckerd fired YFA Feb, 6,  the same day we broadcast our story, even though Eckerd managers had known about the practice since November..

Eckerd insists the YFA firing was related to another abuse investigation that is still ongoing, that involves turning foster kids loose in the community with bus passes instead of supervising them and sending them to school.

Eckerd is now conducting an emergency search for another provider to handle YFA’s case load of 1700 foster kids, facing an Inspector General review, waiting for the results of a Hillsborough sheriff child abuse investigation and answering questions posed by Carroll’s “peer review” team about foster care troubles in in Hillsborough County.

Last week, 8 On Your Side was turned away from Eckerd’s board of directors meeting in Clearwater. An Eckerd lawyer said neither foster care nor public business of any kind was discussed at that meeting and insisted the “parent” board was not subject to Florida’s open meetings law because the “division boards” that oversee foster care operate in the Sunshine.

At Monday’s DCF forum, Cox said closing that Eckerd meeting to our cameras and the public was a terrible idea given the current crisis.

“When you have an organization that’s having a board meeting and you know what the board meeting’s about and they say to these guys, ‘you’re not coming into the meeting’ despite what the department advises and despite what the office of the governor advises, somebody should be able to say, ’bull this is Florida, this is an open meeting,” Cox said. “Just like you’re doing it Mr. Secretary, it’s got to be transparent. That’s the only way you get the trust of the community.”What’s next?

Carroll told a packed audience at DCF’s forum in Tampa that the peer review team of 10 experts, including retired CEOs DCF managers and a retired judge, will spend about two weeks gathering information and speaking to child welfare workers, foster parents, foster kids and other stakeholders.

The team will also look at a DCF Inspector General review as well as an ongoing Hillsborough Sheriff child abuse investigation before making its own written report.

Carroll says he’s determined to make short term and long term fixes to the system after the group identifies problems. Carroll says if the problem turns out to be Eckerd, he’s willing to take action.

“If you fail to live up to your end of the bargain, then yeah, I think we need to take an appropriate response to that,” Carroll said. “But I will wait until all the findings come in.”

“People ask me why I don’t fire Eckerd,” Carroll said. “I could fire Eckerd today and we’re going to be back here six months later, because I believe there is stuff going here today that goes beyond the CBC [Eckerd.]”

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