Eckerd Connects is floating a new idea to help fix a foster care crisis in Hillsborough County that’s triggered two state inquiries and an abuse investigation by the Hillsborough Sheriff’s Office.

The idea is a simple one – create a specialized group home designed to handle troublesome foster teens whose behavior and emotional problems make them unwelcome in any other foster home.

“It only works if there’s a lot of concentrated attention, a lot of compassion and understanding and love, for the child,” said Sister Claire LeBoeuf, who has spent 30 years working in the child welfare system.

The problem of placement for troublesome foster teens in Hillsborough County surfaced in January. That’s when an 8 On Your Side investigation revealed teenagers spending their lives sitting in caseworkers’ cars in a Wawa parking lot on Waters Avenue in Tampa instead of going to school, therapy or foster homes.

Week after week, we kept seeing one girl in particular languishing in cars and later found her sleeping in a caseworker’s office because she refused to go to the foster homes caseworkers had chosen for her. Somehow she decided that an office couch or a car were better options.

“It was heartbreaking for me,” said LeBoeuf. “I wanted to go hug her, I wanted to say you don’t have to do this, you don’t have to live like that. You don’t have to.”

On March 20, Eckerd Connects sent out a “request for Information” for child welfare agencies to propose how they would staff and manage a specialized residential group home for foster teens who don’t fit in anywhere else.

It’s the first step leading to a bid process to create such a home with intense staffing and other services for foster kids “with challenging behaviors and a history of placement disruptions.”

Eckerd made a similar attempt last fall involving two cottage leases from Hillsborough County but that program failed miserably after three weeks because the teens were poorly supervised and creating havoc.

“If it’s done halfway then it won’t (work),” Leboeuf said.

She says by the time foster kids grow into teens they are sometimes so damaged by trauma that it takes intense staffing and other resources to address their needs – something that Eckerd apparently has been unwilling or unable to do until now. Such services are expensive at a time when Eckerd insists it is already stretched to the limit because of an explosion of fosters kids in Hillsborough and a limited budget from the state.

Eckerd refused to comment for this story, citing legal issues that might arise in the eventual bidding process for a group home. But LeBoeuf isn’t shy about expressing her views on the cost-benefit of a specialized group home in light of the Wawa alternative.

“What’s a life worth? How much is too much to turn a child around from a life that is horrendous, traumatic?” LeBoeuf said. “We can’t afford not to do this.”

Eckerd has set an April 16 deadline for response to its call for information from interested agencies. It’s not clear how many, if any, have responded.