DCF is cracking down on Hillsborough foster care following the release of two critical state reports prompted by an 8 On Your Side investigation of foster kids living in a Wawa parking lot. 

The reports cite fractured leadership, a fragmented placement process, too many children being dragged into foster care and staying an excessive amount of time and a system that is ill-equipped to manage teens with behavioral problems, who landed at the Wawa station instead of in homes and schools.

The reports also blame Eckerd for failing to communicate and collaborate with its child welfare partners in Hillsborough and conclude Eckerd’s Board of Directors does not represent stakeholders and the community.

“The Florida Department of Children and Families (DCF) today directed Eckerd Connects to develop a corrective action plan (CAP) for the Hillsborough County child welfare system of care,” said a statement released Tuesday.

“Eckerd Connects must improve trust with children in foster care and community stakeholders,” said DCF Secretary Mike Carroll.

Carroll is now formally putting Eckerd and its child welfare partners under a microscope following the publication of reports by the DCF Inspector General and a Peer Review Team formed by Carroll in the wake of a News Channel 8 report Feb. 6.

Our investigation detailed how foster kids were confined day and night in caseworkers’ cars in a Wawa parking lot due to placement problems instead of attending school and sleeping in homes.

We also discovered foster kids sleeping in child welfare offices, a problem that Eckerd’s new foster care boss confirmed Tuesday has repeated itself 42 times just since March.

“We’re definitely not at a solution place yet,” said Chris Card. “We’re not satisfied with how this is working at this point in time.”

And neither is Carroll. He’s requiring Eckerd to formulate a draft corrective action plan by June 30 based on the problems and recommendations outlined in the IG and Peer Team reports.

A final CAP is due July 15.

“Failure to meet the requirements of the approved CAP could result in contract termination,” according to a DCF statement today.

Card recently took over responsibility for Eckerd Connects, the lead agency for foster care in Hillsborough, Pinellas and Pasco counties.

The former leader in that position, Lorita Shirley, was transferred out of that position amid the crisis and revelations that she knew about the Wawa kids and failed to act.  

Eckerd also fired the subcontractor, Youth and Family Alternatives (YFA), that was directly responsible for keeping kids in caseworkers’ cars at the Wawa.

The agency that replaced YFA, Directions for Living, was just blasted by a Hillsborough judge only last week because its caseworkers aren’t showing up for court.

Directions for Living CEO April Lott tells 8 On Your Side that her agency is trying to manage 1,246 foster kids with only 50 percent of the necessary caseworkers due to a flood of resignations when YFA handed over responsibility to her agency a month ago.

Caseworker burnout is a primary problem now plaguing foster care statewide.

“Doubling pay and reducing caseloads would be a tremendous attraction to people who want to do this work right now,” Lott said. “I can’t offer that. I really wish I could, but I can’t.”

Lott says she hopes to train enough replacements to be back at full strength by September and is eagerly looking for recruits to fill case management positions that pay about $37,000 a year.

One impediment is the caseload.Her staff members handle about 30 cases each when the load should only be 13.

Card assumed leadership of Eckerd’s foster care programs barely a month ago but insists he’s already working on a battery of new initiatives to repair past problems. Now he has to do it under the close scrutiny of DCF.

“We’re going to take this on,” Card said. “We’re going to solve these problems. We’re going to take care of these kids. There’s not an option.”

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