Hillsborough foster kids still sleeping in offices

Investigations

The head of Hillsborough foster care for Eckerd Connects reported Tuesday that his agency is making some progress in solving the foster care crisis in Hillsborough County, but conceded that three children slept in offices Monday night instead of a foster home or group shelter.

“We’ve got a long way to go,” said Chris Card. “I don’t want anybody to think we’re out of the woods yet because we’re not.”

Card says that so far in August, seven kids have landed overnight in foster care offices.

Last month, four foster children slept in offices and in June, there were a dozen kids who ended up in offices a total of 17 times.

Card says in most cases it’s because the children refuse placement in available foster homes and Eckerd Connects cannot force them to go, but has invested “targeted” services to work with foster kids who balk at foster home placements.

“Progress is being made but this a long path that we’re on,” Card said.

Overall, Card painted a slowly improving picture of foster care at the monthly Community Alliance meeting in Tampa. He reported on Eckerd’s execution of the Corrective Action Plan ordered by DCF in the wake of two state investigations of foster care issues that first surfaced in an 8 On Your Side investigation back in February.

Back then, we discovered a handful of foster teens spending their lives living in a gas station parking lot and some of them sleeping in offices. Our reports helped spark the firing of a foster care provider hired by Eckerd Connects and a change in leadership at Eckerd itself.

The Secretary of DCF, Mike Carroll, also ordered an Inspector General investigation and formed a Peer Review Team of experts to analyze the troubles we uncovered in Hillsborough.

Tuesday, Card said there is a host of new services offered for foster kids and the number of night-to-night placements is improving. He also reported on the addition of more foster homes and case workers but conceded there are many challenges ahead.

The average case load is 22.6 per case worker compared to the state’s target of 17.

Altogether, 28 caseworkers have case loads of 30 kids or more while Eckerd tries to recruit more caseworkers and retain the ones it already has in the field.

“We’re struggling with it and we’re gonna get there but its gonna take a little bit of time,” Card said.

One of the most daunting challenges right now is money. Card says Eckerd Connects is already projecting a multimillion dollar deficit this year based on current funding, even after making cuts to the budget.

The announced resignation of DCF Secretary Mike Carroll adds uncertainty, but Card says he is hopeful that Carroll’s replacement will keep the Correct Action Plan initiatives on track.

A new federal law called the Family First Act will purportedly reduce or eliminate federal funding for group foster homes, which throws another wildcard into the mix for foster care statewide.

“It’s a very concerning situation that we’re not prepared for today,” Card said.

Risila Milima is a child advocate with the Federation of Families who asks a lot of pointed questions about diversity among foster care providers and why so many children of color end up in foster care relative to their overall population in Hillsborough County.

Milima is often a harsh critic of Eckerd and DCF’s efforts to provide quality foster care, especially for minorities, but sounded encouraged after listening to Card’s presentation Tuesday.

“I would say overall they’re certainly pointing in the right direction,” Milima said. “But there’s still a lot of work that they must continue to do.”

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