HILLSBOROUGH COUNTY, Fla. (WFLA) – A nine member team of outside experts formed by DCF Secretary Mike Carroll arrives Monday in Hillsborough County to begin a comprehensive “peer review” of foster care failures, some of which we first exposed in our 8 On Your Side investigation a month ago.
The panel will also look at why Hillsborough’s foster care population is growing at a record rate, with close to 4000 foster kids in the system.
The panel will have an open public session starting at 1 p.m. Monday at DCF offices located at 9393 North Florida Avenue in Tampa.
Last month we documented foster kids spending days and nights in the parking lot of a Wawa gas station on Waters Ave.
Week after week we watched them sitting in caseworkers’ cars instead of going to school, therapy or a foster home.
Lorita Shirley, Eckerd Connects’ top foster care executive had been receiving anonymous tips about the Wawa warehousing since November but decided they were not credible. It turned out those detailed tips, at least five of them, were spot on and most likely sent by frustrated caseworkers employed by Eckerd subcontractor Youth and Family Alternatives (YFA).
That practice has been happening at least since last September, according to records obtained by 8 On Your Side, but Eckerd, the lead agency hired by DCF to manage foster care in Hillsborough and Pinellas, did little to stop it until January, shortly before we revealed the practice in our Rides to Nowhere investigation.
The same day we aired our first report on Feb. 6, Eckerd fired YFA (effective in May) and is now conducting an emergency search for a replacement provider for 1700 foster kids. An abuse investigation against YFA began on Jan. 25, after a caseworker dropped off a misbehaving foster teen in front of Eckerd’s Family Place offices on North Florida Ave. Shirley personally called the abuse hotline that day to report the incident.
A subsequent investigation revealed it was a common practice by YFA to release hard to manage foster teens into the community with bus passes instead of supervising them or sending them to school. The foster teens also told investigators they were spending time at the Wawa station. That matter is the focus of an ongoing neglect investigation by the Hillsborough Sheriff’s Office that reportedly focuses on YFA.
Meanwhile, DCF ordered its Inspector General to begin an investigation after our Wawa investigation showed foster kids at the gas station day after day, week after week, day and night. Secretary Mike Carroll also rounded up a team of outside experts for a top to bottom examination of what’s wrong with foster care in Hillsborough County under Eckerd’s management.
DCF is paying Eckerd $146 million this year as the lead agency for foster care in Pinellas and Hillsborough Counties. Eckerd provides foster home placements and subcontracts with other private agencies like YFA to provide caseworkers who supervise foster kids.
Monday, Eckerd announced it is running a $4.1 million deficit for foster care in Hillsborough and will need more money from state lawmakers to make up the difference due to an overwhelming increase in foster kids entering the system with insufficient increased funds to care for them.
Eckerd paid its private nonprofit CEO David Dennis $746,208 in annual salary and benefits in 2016, the most recent year available for review in IRS records. Altogether Eckerd derived around 96 percent of its income from government sources in 2016, Wednesday, under Dennis’ leadership, Eckerd’s “parent board” held a private meeting in Clearwater that excluded our cameras and the public.
Eckerd attorney Barry Richard, who represented George W. Bush in the controversial 2000 Presidential election, insisted Thursday that neither foster care nor any other public business was discussed at that “parent board” meeting Wednesday and said it did not fall under the disclosure requirements of Florida’s open meetings law. Richard said open “division board” meetings held Tuesday in Pinellas and Hillsborough focused on foster care and satisfied Sunshine Law requirements
Given the current controversy over foster care failures under Eckerd’s watch, DCF, the governor and 8 On Your Side attorneys all urged Eckerd to open its Wednesday “parent board” meeting for the sake of transparency, but Eckerd declined, saying it had a legal right to keep it private.
Monday, the DCF team of outside experts will begin reviewing Eckerd’s foster care records and interviewing stakeholders in an effort to improve Hillsborough foster care in light of recent failures, our reports and the ongoing investigations.
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