A statewide DCF Peer Review Team that spent months investigating failures in the Hillsborough foster care system has found plenty.
On Friday, DCF announced it is taking steps to remedy deficiencies by its private contractor – Eckerd Connects – that were first uncovered in an 8 On Your Side investigation in February.
DCF plans to embed its own financial and child welfare experts inside Eckerd Connects – the agency it pays millions to provide Hillsborough foster care – in order to fix placement and oversight problems we exposed in our reports months ago.
“We are taking immediate action to address significant issues that have been identified by the review team that has conducted an extensive examination of the local system of care,” said DCF Secretary Mike Carroll in a statement released late Friday. “We have zero tolerance for any management or practices that could result in anything less than excellent care for the children and families we serve. These initial actions will ensure that no time is wasted in correcting deficiencies that must be immediately remedied.”
Carroll assembled the blue ribbon panel of experts shortly after the 8 On Your Side investigation in February uncovered foster kids confined to caseworkers’ cars day and night in a Tampa Wawa gas station on Waters Avenue.
The DCF team reports areas of concern that were graphically featured in that series of WFLA investigative reports. Our reports showed foster kids essentially living in a gas station parking lot and sleeping in offices due to placement problems. Foster kids reportedly went without sleep, food, showers or school for extended periods while Eckerd and its subcontractors failed to act.
DCF pays Eckerd Connects millions of tax dollars as the lead agency overseeing foster care in Hillsborough, and Eckerd hires subcontractors to deliver many of the basic services.
In this case, WFLA discovered one of those Eckerd subcontractors – Youth and Family Alternatives – was keeping some of the most troubled foster kids confined to cars in a Wawa parking lot day and night because either they had nowhere to go or they rejected placement in homes provided by Eckerd.
In some cases, teenage foster kids would spend all night in cars at the Wawa station and other locations and then be driven by caseworkers to school the next morning without sleep, a change of clothes or an opportunity to shower or eat. In a follow-up report, we later found one of the “Wawa kids” sleeping in YFA offices instead of the parking lot.
Eckerd executive Lorita Shirley publicly denied knowing about the Wawa problem and said she was “blindsided” by our reports. But our investigation later revealed Shirley had been receiving the same anonymous tips WFLA was receiving regarding the transgressions by YFA and failed to act.
Internal emails exchanged with regional DCF executives showed that Shirley privately speculated whether WFLA would take the allegations seriously and left it at that. Eckerd later re-assigned Shirley to another position and hired a new executive to oversee foster care.
On the same day of WFLA’S first broadcast detailing the Wawa stories back on Feb. 6, Eckerd fired YFA. They later hired another agency, Directors for Living, to replace YFA in providing foster care services for as many as 1,700 foster kids. That transition formally takes effect next week.
According to a DCF statement released late Friday afternoon, “The review team’s immediate recommendations include bringing a child welfare subject matter expert to work toward systemic stabilization of placements and streamlining the placement process. The preliminary recommendations include 10 directives that address specific issues, such as case management caseload, behavioral health services and placement availability and stability.”
DCF says it is sending two high-powered experts to help remedy Eckerd’s foster care failures through direct oversight and involvement, an action that appears to be unprecedented by the agency.
“DCF has deployed a nationally-recognized child welfare consultant, Dr. Joyce Taylor, to work directly with Eckerd Connects, on-site, to provide guidance to strengthen their practices and policies,” the statement reads. “Dr. Taylor is affiliated with Yale University’s Program on Supervision, was formerly the Deputy Commissioner at the Connecticut Department of Children and Families, and has assisted other community-based care lead agencies in Florida.”
“DCF has assigned a financial consultant, Melissa Jaacks, to work directly with Eckerd Connects to review all finances to identify administrative cost savings and develop a sound financial viability plan to avoid future operating deficits,” it adds. “Ms. Jaacks is a certified public accountant, previously served as the assistant secretary for administration at DCF in Florida and the chief of staff of the federal Administration for Children and Families. She also provides financial consulting services for a variety of child welfare agencies.”
DCF says its review team will provide a full report on its findings once a DCF Inspector General’s management review and Hillsborough Sheriff’s Office investigation are complete. After the review team releases its final report, there will be a DCF community meeting to share the findings and recommendations with the public.
Eckerd Connections issued the following response to News Channel 8:
Eckerd Connects acknowledges that there are challenges in this system and we welcome the assistance of the consultants recommended by the peer review team.
It is our commitment to embrace the recommendations of the review team and engage the entire community to improve the care of our children an families.