Public blocked from Eckerd Connects board meeting amid Hillsborough foster care crisis

8 On Your Side

CLEARWATER, Fla. (WFLA) — The Eckerd Connects Board of Directors, which is now facing a foster care crisis in Hillsborough County, held a closed meeting Wednesday morning in Clearwater despite calls from the governor, DCF and 8 On Your Side attorneys to open the discussion to the public.

“This board meeting being held here today is not open to the public, is not open to the media. We made that clear in our letter from our attorney yesterday,” Josh Talkington, Eckerd’s Senior Manager of External Relations told 8 On Your Side Wednesday. “We’re asking you to leave.”

Eckerd is facing a top-to-bottom review by a team of experts that DCF Secretary Mike Carroll formed after expressing serious concerns about the treatment of foster kids in Hillsborough County. The Hillsborough sheriff is now investigating allegations of systematic neglect by one of Eckerd’s service providers, Youth and Family Alternatives (YFA.) The DCF inspector general is also investigating foster care troubles, some of which were brought to light by an 8 On Your Side investigation.

Last month, Eckerd fired YFA the same day 8 On Your Side broadcast our “Rides to Nowhere” foster care investigation in which we exposed the practice of keeping foster kids day and night, week after week confined to caseworkers’ cars in the parking lot of a Wawa gas station on Waters Avenue in Tampa.

We discovered foster teens were spending their days sitting in those caseworkers’ cars instead of attending school, therapy or going to foster homes. Eckerd insists the foster kids themselves – who have behavior issues – are to blame because they refused placements and there are no alternative places for their supervision. Eckerd first learned of the practice in November thanks to a tip originally sent to 8 On Your Side, but failed to take action to stop it.

Eckerd claimed Tuesday it is within policy guidelines to keep foster kids in cars with caseworkers for extended periods of time as long as they are in a safe, brightly lighted area. But the Governor and DCF Secretary have both condemned the documented practice in Hillsborough of warehousing foster teens in caseworkers’ cars and vans at the Waters Ave. Wawa and other parking lots such as a Dollar General store and a McDonalds.

Eckerd and its attorney insist its quarterly board meetings like the one that happened Wednesday are private because that board does not directly conduct any government business. But 8 On Your Side attorney James Lake believes those meetings should be public because Eckerd derives 96 percent of its income from tax dollars. Four of the board members at Wednesday’s meeting are also members of Eckerd’s Hillsborough community-based care board which Eckerd concedes is a public body performing public business funded with public money acting as an agent of the state. Another four members of Eckerd’s master board also sit on Eckerd’s Pinellas community-based care board. Altogether eight members of Eckerd’s 13 master board members also serve on those two public CBC boards. It’s not clear how many of them attended Wednesday’s master board meeting.

Late Tuesday, DCF urged Eckerd to open Wednesday’s meeting after learning it would be closed to 8 On Your Side and the public. Wednesday morning, Gov. Rick Scott also called for it to be open to the public.”I  believe in transparency and accountability so if you’re going to take taxpayer dollars you have to be transparent,” Scott told Eight on Your Side. “So as soon as DCF heard that meeting was not going to be opened they asked that it be opened and I believe that it  should.”

Wednesday morning former foster child Hope Austrie was also turned away from the meeting. Austrie transitioned out of Hillsborough foster care last April after spending five years as a ward of the state. On Wednesday, she wanted to share her own experiences in Hillsborough foster care with the board so they would have a better picture of what was going on. “They so-called want to do everything to help the foster kids but they don’t want to hear from me and try to fix the problem,” Austrie said.

Only two outsiders were invited into the Eckerd building at 100 Starcrest in Clearwater on Wednesday– a woman donating 750 books to kids in the child welfare system and a woman delivering three boxes of quiche for the board members’ breakfast.

“All they’re doing is sitting in this office eating quiche all day long,” Austrie said. “They have money for quiche but they don’t have money to fix the problems.”

On Tuesday, Eckerd manager Lorita Shirley announced Eckerd expects to have a $4.1 million dollar deficit in Hillsborough foster care funding by the end of this fiscal year due to a record growth in the number of foster kids in the system that is not matched by state funding. Shirley said Eckerd hopes to recover that money from state lawmakers in order to balance its books but is taking out a line of credit to make sure there’s enough money to cover Hillsborough foster care services in the meantime.

Late Wednesday, Eckerd’s Director of External Relations Doug Tobin released a statement saying, “Eckerd Connects is 100 percent dedicated to the safety and well-being of the children, young adults and families in need of our support.  We are currently in the process of conducting assessments of our processes and relationships with the child welfare agencies who act as partners in our important work.  We welcome public involvement in that process”.

According to the most recent IRS financial report, Eckerd – which operates primarily as a private nonprofit performing child welfare services for the government – collected $184,566,920 from taxpayers in 2016 which is equivalent to 96 percent of its total revenue.

That same 2016  IRS report indicates Eckerd’s Board of Directors paid CEO David Dennis $746,208 that year in salary and benefits. Lorita Shirley, who is Eckerd’s third-highest paid executive and currently oversees Hillsborough foster care, collected $230,185 in salary and benefits.

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