All eyes are on the child welfare system in Pinellas County after the alleged murder of 2-year old Jordan Belliveau at the hands of his own mother.
But a previously confidential criminal investigation obtained by 8 On Your Side also reveals serious issues in Hillsborough County’s child welfare system.
Hillsborough County Sheriff’s abuse investigators discovered that Youth and Family Alternatives (YFA), under contract with Eckerd Connects, commonly dumped troubled foster teens into the community without food, water, money or even a bus token when they were suspended from school or refused to attend classes.
In two cases, investigators suspected that teenage foster girls were committing prostitution during their unsupervised release. One of the girls told detectives “she runs and does ‘whatever she needs to do’ to get money to buy clothes, food or whatever she needs ‘just to survive’ or get a break.”
That same girl said “she does not have a pimp and she is tired of people saying that she’s been trafficked…she’s just doing what she needs to do to survive because no kid should have to worry about how their needs are going to be met.”
Another girl returned to foster care after unsupervised outings with hair and nail treatments but couldn’t explain how she’d paid for them.
Those interviews are among many in a 158 page investigative report sparked by an abuse hotline call in January, a week before 8 on Your Side reported foster teens living night and day in caseworkers’ cars a Wawa parking lot on Waters Avenue in Tampa.
YFA managers told detectives that unruly foster teens who didn’t attend school were set free in the community under a policy called “normalcy.”
But child advocate Connie Going, who reviewed the report at our request, says that’s an absurd excuse for abandoning foster kids to fend for themselves.
“They found that these children were neglected,” Going said. “They were neglected. You don’t drop a child that has no needs in a park. You don’t drop them at the library and say that’s normalcy.”
Some of the teens interviewed by detectives confirmed they were kept with caseworkers at the Wawa at times when they weren’t turned loose in the community to wander in parks, public housing projects and hang out with boyfriends because they weren’t attending school.
A number of the children were on night to night placements without any idea where they would sleep and in some cases, barely sleeping at all.
One girl told detectives she “doesn’t know where she’s going to eat, doesn’t know if she’s going to have clean clothes to wear, or when she’ll be able to wash her clothes or when she’ll be able to take another shower.”
Top managers with Eckerd Connects and YFA either denied knowing what was going on or placed blame on other managers or caseworkers for the foster care shortcomings and violations of their own policies.
In June, Hillsborough State Attorney Andrew Warren declined to press criminal charges against Youth and Family Alternatives staff members or anyone at Eckerd Connects, which is the private agency paid millions by DCF to oversee foster care in Hillsborough County.
No one at Warren’s office responded when we called to question why no charges were filed.
Warren sent a letter to Sheriff Chad Chronister stating, “There is no legal basis to file criminal charges in this matter. Despite the absence of any criminal violations we have a broader responsibility to our community to evaluate and understand how this situation occurred.”
“Certainly it’s not acceptable behavior, I would say that,“ said Colonel James Bradford who oversees all criminal investigations by the Hillsborough Sheriff’s Office.
“From what the investigation revealed what they were doing, Eckerd and their subsidiaries were doing was not acceptable, a violation of their policy.”
The same day that 8 On Your Side revealed foster kids living in the gas station parking lot, and a week after the hotline report that triggered the Hillsborough Sheriff’s abuse investigation, Eckerd fired YFA.
Eckerd later replaced YFA with Directions for Living, the Pinellas-based agency that provided caseworker supervision for former foster child Jordan Belliveau’s family before Belliveau’s murder Labor Day weekend.
As a result of the Hillsborough scandal that 8 On Your Side helped uncover, Eckerd Connects replaced its head of foster care, Lorita Shirley, with Chris Card.
Shirley is now serving as Eckerd Connects’ chief of performance and quality.
Card is currently operating Eckerd’s foster care program in Hillsborough under intense pressure to fix problems through a DCF-approved Corrective Action Plan.
Card tells 8 On Your Side he was stunned at the lack of supervision, allegations of foster teen prostitution and shoddy treatment of foster teens uncovered by the sheriff’s office investigation that wrapped up in June.
“I’m just as shocked as you are that those kind of things happened,” Card said. “And they will not happen under our watch now.”
Meanwhile, Going says what happened in the years or months prior to Card taking over is inexcusable.
“Where is the accountability,” Going said. “Eckerd is accountable for everything that’s happening regardless of who they contracted with.”