Hillsborough foster kids still sleeping in offices

Investigations

One year after an anonymous tipster first told 8 On Your Side that foster kids were sleeping in cars in a Tampa gas station parking lot, some of then are still sleeping in foster care offices in Hillsborough County.

Eckerd Connects reports that 10 foster kids slept in offices so far this month, 13 last month and 20 in September.

Altogether, it’s something that’s happened to foster kids 86 times since September.

Eckerd says sometimes kids refuse offered placements, other times there is no place to send them.

“We’re not proud of this,” said Eckerd Connects Chief of Community Care Chris Card. “We struggle every night to get these kids placed.”

Card made that announcement at a Community Alliance meeting of foster care stakeholders at the Children’s Board in Tampa on Monday.

He also delivered a report card on other benchmark challenges such as the ongoing shortage of caseworkers, caseworkers failing to show up for court hearings 10 percent of the time and some frayed caseworkers handling as many as 30 kids apiece, nearly twice the state standard.

But one positive sign of progress is that Card is even talking about those problems in public. Eckerd Connects no longer operates under the veil of secrecy we first uncovered back in January.

Card purposely makes a point of responding to reporters’ questions instead of literally running the other way like his predecessors once did.

“I would say we’re much more transparent. We’re letting people know what is going on every day. We’re wrapping a lot of services around these kids and families,” Card told 8 On Your Side.

“For effort, I think i would give them a solid B,” said child advocate Robin Rosenberg who works for a nonprofit organization called Florida’s Children First.  

Rosenberg was appalled when our 8 On Your Side investigation first exposed foster kids living in cars back in January but is impressed by Eckerd’s attempts to turn things around, albeit under constant pressure from DCF.

“Performance where we’re at, we’re still at the C level but the effort is there and I applaud them for that. There’s just a long way to go,” Rosenberg said.

Card publicly announced Wednesday that Eckerd Connects expects to run a $2 million operating deficit this year, despite spending $55 million in state money to care for foster kids in Hillsborough County.

Hillsborough has more foster kids crowding its system than anywhere else in Florida and continues to remove them from families at a higher rate than anywhere else.

“So we’re taking in too many kids. We’re not getting them out fast enough and we’re not making sure when they go home, they can stay home,” Rosenberg said.

Eckerd Connect isn’t the cause all of those problems, but it is the private agency paid by taxpayers to manage them.

Before 8 On Your Side got involved, many of the foster care problems were hidden from view, now they’re out in the open. 

Card was hired this year to turn things around after Eckerd fired YFA, the subcontractor responsible for keeping kids at the Wawa station and two state investigations called for major reforms.

To his credit, Card doesn’t sugarcoat the challenge that he still faces nearly a year after we first revealed foster kids living in cars. He freely admits some kids still sleep in offices.

“Definitely a long way to go,” Card said. “And definitely we’ve made a lot of progress.”

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