TAMPA, Fla. (WFLA) – Foster parents in the Tampa Bay area claim there are open beds for children who end up sleeping in offices, but poor communication and other issues play a role in not connecting the child to the home.
According to Eckerd Connects, 93 foster children in Hillsborough, Pasco and Pinellas counties spent at least one night in an unlicensed setting in 2019. The Pasco and Pinellas data does not include the first four months of the year. The total went down to 64 last year in the three Tampa Bay counties Eckerd serves.
Chris Card, the chief of community-based care at Eckerd, said before the decision is made to have a child sleep in an unlicensed setting like an office, the agency reaches out to the child’s foster parents hoping for an emergency placement.
“It’s difficult to find a place that would willingly accept them,” Card said, referring to the children who are the most difficult to place. “They’ve got lengthy juvenile records. They’ve been in and out of mental health institutions. And their behavior reflects that.”
Joshua Nwajei has fostered 11 local children since 2019 and was a foster child himself.
“There are plenty of beds,” Nwajei said. “But the system is inefficient.”
He claims emergency placement requests that he has received did not come with vital information about the child. One example involves his first placement as a foster parent.
“I hear a noise and I go there and the kid’s trying to assault the other child,” Nwajei said. “This kid has a history of assaulting other children. They never told me, so I was not aware. I could not plan or anything.”
Card said information is supposed to be provided to parents who then have a choice about accepting the placement. He emphasized the goal is to find matches for every child and pointed out the total number of emergency placements has gone down over the past two years.
“But there are some kids we are still struggling with,” Card said. “We’ve added more resources, locations for these kids to try to find a better fit for them.”
Several other foster parents who asked not to be identified expressed frustrations similar to Nwajei’s claims. One said she has had an open bed for months, “but the state doesn’t call.”
Another parent said case workers are slow about responding to questions and concerns. One woman said there are “so many issues,” but she feared she would lose her foster children if she spoke up about the problems.
Nwajei said while he does fear retribution for speaking out, he wanted to speak out anyway to “stick up for these kids.” He said he “has and would” take emergency placements, but not without details about the child’s history.
“I can’t prepare reasonably to protect my family if I don’t know the behaviors,” Nwajei said. “But if I’m informed and I know, I have an open bed now for a child.”
Nwajei blamed Eckerd and its contractor Children’s Home Network for not providing information. Children’s Home Network President and CEO Irene Rickus responded with a statement but did not directly address Nwajei’s claims.
“The need for more licensed foster homes, and specifically trauma-informed homes equipped to care for the specific needs of children of all needs, is a challenge we face,” Rickus said. “Children’s Home Network welcomes this conversation as an opportunity to find the best ways to serve Florida’s foster children.”
There are currently just more than 2,700 Tampa Bay area children in licensed care under Eckerd’s watch. There are just under 1,600 licensed foster homes.
Office placements were exposed by 8 On Your Side years ago and a 2018 report showed surveillance video of children spending hours waiting in cars with caseworkers for their next placement in a convenience store parking lot.
Eckerd is in the final year of a five-year contract with the Florida Department of Children and Families that pays the non-profit about $77 million a year.