LUTZ, Fla. (WFLA) – Two non-profits took charge of foster care in the area’s three most populated counties, but parents say they are waiting for true change to take hold of the troubled system.
After years of issues, including emergency placements in offices, Eckerd Connects was replaced by Family Support Services in Pinellas and Pasco counties and Children’s Network in Hillsborough County.
Information recently provided to 8 On Your Side by Children’s Network indicated offices are still being used for emergency placements.
Foster parents across the area have said that their recent monthly subsidy payments have either been delayed or not been paid at all by the new providers.
Another potential issue was revealed by other parents, including Angella Hart.
Hart, a former child welfare case worker, claims Eckerd Connects and its subcontractor did not do enough to help her son who overdosed last summer at the age of 32.
Family Support Services took over Hart’s granchildren’s cases, but she said the subcontractor is the same, leaving her and other foster parents wondering what has actually changed.
“Nothing has changed. It’s the same,” Hart said. “Same case managers. Same service providers. Everything is the same. If your service providers and case managers are still the exact same, what changed?”
In a statement, FSS president and CEO Jenn Petion said when the non-profit took over Pinellas and Pasco eight months ago, “70 percent of our internal case manager positions were vacant.”
That job vacancy number is now 15 percent, according to Petion.
“We have put in place skilled and dedicated leaders to guide the expansive amount of work needing to be done,” Petion said. “Our number one priority is to provide dedicated, compassionate care and support to children and families.”
Petion said FSS has focused on four top priority areas: workforce stability, placement capacity, permanency, and family preservation.
Hart became the foster parent for her grandchildren after they were removed from her son and daughter-in-law’s home following a drug issue.
“I still strongly believe that had they done their job, my son would be here today,” Hart said. “Programs were available. My son needed help that was available, but never [provided].”
Richard Wexler, Executive Director of the National Coalition for Child Protection Reform, said with similar personnel, the lead agencies would have to provoke change.
“It depends on how the personnel are motivated,” Wexler said. “By that I don’t mean by the individuals as much as [motivation from] the agencies themselves.”
Wexler said a bigger problem in the Tampa Bay area and across Florida is data that shows children are removed from their families too often.
“Get the children who don’t really need to be in foster care back in their own homes and there will be plenty of room in good, safe foster homes for the children in real danger,” Wexler said. “And no one will need to sleep in an office or a makeshift placement.”
Wexler said it is important that law enforcement and family court judges understand the difference between poverty and neglect. He said a lack of resources can often be mistaken for bad care.
Hart said with better, more timely services, her grandchildren would not have needed to be removed from her son’s home. She said that case was not as complicated as other child welfare investigations.
“If [the case worker is] overlooking this simple stuff,” Hart said. “How are you actually being thorough in the cases that are a lot more complicated?”
Wexler said other states have decreased the number of children in foster care by providing parents with better legal help in court.
“Legal teams specialize in these types of [custody] cases,” Wexler said. “They help families stay together when it’s the best option.”