HILLSBOROUGH COUNTY, Fla. (WFLA) — For years, 8 On Your Side has exposed the problem of local foster children left to sleep in empty offices while they wait for a place to stay, but what happens to those same kids during the day, without a host family to call their own?
8 On Your Side’s Brittany Muller found a local facility where foster children are sent during the day. Operators said facilities like this one keep foster kids off the streets, but critics said it’s just a way to warehouse children with no place else to go.
A boarded-up cement block building sits on Corrine street in Tampa’s Palmetto Beach neighborhood. Signs outside say it used to be a Pentecostal Church. These days, neighbors see kids coming and going, but say they’re not sure what’s happening inside.
“Now I guess it’s like a Boys and Girls Club,” said Maikl Aguilera, neighbor.
8 On Your Side visited the building on Corrine Street multiple times. We saw children, teenagers and younger being dropped off and picked up by contractors hired to transport foster kids. The children would enter or leave with their belongings in tow, often in suitcases or backpacks.
What happens here? Is it a school? A training facility? A day care?
A woman said her teenage daughter was placed at the building on Corrine Street. She asked us to conceal her identity to protect her daughter. We’re calling her Sarah. She said her daughter simply sits inside during the day and sometimes she doesn’t eat unless a family member can bring her food. Sarah said there’s no specialized care and sometimes even fights break out.
“I feel like the state it’s just looking at my child, and any other child in the system as money for them,” said Sarah.
Sarah worries her daughter isn’t getting the help she needs.
So, what’s happening here? 8 On Your Side did some digging. The building on Corinne Street is managed by a company named Community Project Elevation, Inc., or CPEI. State records list Brandon businessman Emmanuel Akah as the company’s CEO.
We reached out to Akah. He wouldn’t speak with us on camera, but he told us the Corrine Street facility is a “day supervision” program for foster kids. Akah told us the facility doesn’t offer therapy or vocational training, but claims that workers help the children with homework.
Akah referred any other questions to the Children’s Network of Hillsborough, the private contractor hired by Florida’s Department of Children and Families to manage the county’s foster care system. DCF pays the Children’s Network $107 million a year.
8 On Your Side contacted the Children’s Network. We wanted to ask them about CPEI and the services they expect the company to provide.
The Children’s Network provided us with this statement: “CPEI provides supervision and mentoring for adolescents. These services are focused on social development. Youth are in a structured environment where behavior management is incorporated. Tutoring is available for youth in need of educational assistance and family support.”
We checked with the Tampa Police Department and found more than 130 police calls to the building on Corrine Street since June—calls reporting physical battery, criminal mischief, disturbances, runaway calls and even an attempted suicide.
Attorney Ad Litem, Maria Pavlidis, who volunteers to represent foster children in court, is concerned that facilities like the one on Corrine Street could do more harm than good.
“You are removing children from a home that you think is inappropriate or has violence neglect, and then you’re putting them in a place that’s almost worse than where they were before,” said Pavlidis.
Part of the problem, Pavlidis says, is that facilities like the one on Corrine Street aren’t required to be licensed by the state.
“The bare minimum for a licensed facility is that they have to go through strict requirements of who’s employed there and that they have the appropriate training,” said Pavlidis.
As for Sarah, she said she wants what is best for her daughter. Despite their struggles in the past, she wonders if her daughter might be better off back in her care, then in a place like this.
“There are no services that I know of I just see that a lot of things that happened in that facility is a lot of fights,” said Sarah.
We tried to ask the Department of Children and Families about the Corrine Street facility, too. but DCF declined to make a statement, and instead referred us back to their contractor, the Children’s Network.