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Hillsborough judge blasts Eckerd foster care workers for skipping court

Judge calls no-shows 'endemic'

HILLSBOROUGH COUNTY, Fla. (WFLA) - Hillsborough Circuit Judge Caroline Tesche Arkin sees a lot of disturbing things in her dependency courtroom but it’s what she didn’t see last Tuesday at 4 p.m. that sent her into a rant on behalf of foster kids.

“I'm getting frustrated,” Arkin said. "I mean when have case after case without case managers in the courtroom, it’s been extremely frustrating.”

Arkin ripped into foster care caseworkers from Eckerd Connects and Eckerd’s new foster care subcontractor Directions for Living for repeatedly failing to show up for court hearings, a problem she called “endemic” when children’s lives hang in the balance of justice.

“I am getting quite tired of covering for people who aren’t in this courtroom,” Arkin said Tuesday. "Not only is it frustrating for the way the courtroom itself runs but also for the overall questions for the children we are charged to protect."

The judge declined an interview request by News Channel 8, but in a three-minute long recorded tirade last Tuesday that we pieced together with video and audio recordings by the court, she unloaded on private agency caseworkers funded with public money who failed to appear for dependency hearings involving foster kids multiple times that day alone.

“We believe in exactly what the judge is saying,” Eckerd Connects spokesman Doug Tobin later told 8 On Your Side. “If there’s a court hearing then we need to have a representative in court ready to answer those questions.”

Arkin threatened to take legal action such as holding caseworkers in contempt if the pattern continued.

"Maybe I start thinking about things like rules to show cause,” Arkin said. "Maybe I start requiring that the case managers become witnesses and they are subpoenaed by the department.”

"Our case managers are responsible for letting our supervisors know that something happened that I cannot make court and the supervisor is supposed to come or their supervisor," Tobin said.

Tobin attributed the no-shows to a variety of causes including Directions For Living's recent takeover of cases after Eckerd fired its previous foster care subcontractor, Youth and Family Alternatives (YFA), earlier this year.

“The reason that it happens sometimes, and not to make any excuses, is the influx of children and sometimes emergencies. Those are the two biggest reasons,” Tobin said.

Tobin's boss Chris Card who recently took over leadership of foster care programs for Eckerd later explained that Directions for Living is operating with 30 fewer caseworkers than it's approved number of 77.

Eckerd fired YFA back in February.

That happened the same day our 8 On Your Side investigation revealed that caseworkers were confining foster kids in their cars day and night in a Wawa parking lot instead of sending them to school or foster care homes.

Eckerd later explained the kids kept at the Wawa station were hard to place foster teens who in some cases refused night-to-night home placements arranged by Eckerd.

Card says a number of caseworkers quit when YFA turned over operations to Directions for Living and others simply left the profession. Card says there are now 20 caseworkers in training and the agency is looking for more to fill another 10 vacant positions to manage 1,246 foster care kids in Hillsborough.

Our Wawa investigation and the disclosure by Eckerd that YFA was simply turning foster kids loose in the community instead of sending them to school or other programs triggered a DCF Inspector General’s investigation and a blue ribbon panel known as the Peer Review Team to dig into an unfolding crisis in Hillsborough’s foster care system.

We’re still waiting for the findings of those investigations.

Judge Arkin made an oblique reference to those problems in Tuesday’s courtroom tongue lashing.

“Ultimately, it’s the department’s responsibility [DCF] but we do have the new case management entity but today has not been a blue banner day by a long stretch,” Arkin said.

“Not only is it frustrating for the way the courtroom itself runs but also for the overall questions for the children we are charged to protect.”

Arkin told representatives from the Attorney General’s Office and the Guardian Ad Litem program to send it “up the food chain” and return Friday for a rescheduled hearing on the dependency matter that caseworkers failed to show up for.

Arkin’s courtroom was packed Friday with caseworkers from Eckerd and Directions for Living as well as supervisors from those private organizations funded by $6.6 million in public money to provide Hillsborough foster care.

Eckerd even sent its corporate spokesman to monitor the courtroom in response to the judge’s opening volley Tuesday.

“Everything the court says is recorded and subject to review to the world and I’m getting frustrated,” Arkin said Tuesday.

On Friday, the judge seemed pleased that she wasn’t staring at a lot of empty chairs when dealing with the same dependency case involving several kids in foster care and parents who are trying to regain custody.

“Thanks for being here everybody,” she said. “I appreciate it.”

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