TAMPA, Fla. (WFLA) — A recent child welfare case that resulted in a mother gaining custody of her son underscores both the difficulty of the reunification process and a flaw in the system, according to a foster mother involved.
Savannah Jo Coffey, 27, of Lakeland, was reunited with her toddler Oct. 13. According to court records, that is also the date she allegedly assaulted him, prompting one count of felony child abuse.
A public records request for the arrest warrant and incident report produced a mostly-redacted document that did not offer any details about what happened. Attempts to reach Coffey for comment have been unsuccessful.
Foster mother Denise Robinson said one doctor told her a contusion on the child’s eye was one of the worst injuries he had ever seen. Robinson could not stop her tears, reflecting on raising Coffey’s child for about a year and half starting when he was 11 days old.
“He had only been gone for five days when he was beat up,” Robinson said. “You do everything to keep him safe and in this one instance, I couldn’t keep him safe no matter what I did. No matter what I said, I just could not keep him safe.”
Statements about the case obtained by 8 On Your Side indicate there were several potential red flags, including another open alleged abuse investigation.
The case worker was employed by Eckerd Connects subcontractor Gulf Coast Jewish Family and Community Services but family court records are sealed. So it is not public record whether anyone expressed concerns to the judge who made the decision to give Coffey custody.
An Eckerd spokesperson said he could not comment on the ongoing investigation.
Robinson and other foster parents called this an example of what can go wrong when reunification is rushed. One common complaint heard from Tampa Bay area foster parents is they are not invited to hearings or asked to offer their input.
Robinson and others said they are for reunification when a parent is ready to bring the child home.
“You love them and you don’t want them not to be reunified,” Robinson said. “You want them to go home safe. I’ve reunified many kids and you want to be heard.”
Eckerd Connects was paid about $80 million from the state this year but both the agency and the Florida Department of Children and Family said they decided to allow two contracts to expire, prompting expected changes for the care of about 6,600 children in Hillsborough, Pinellas and Pasco counties.
Eckerd’s Pasco-Pinellas contract involving about 3,600 children expires in six weeks. The agencies bidding for the contract are Safe Families for Children, based in Chicago, Illinois, Family Support Services, based in Jacksonville and Kids Central Inc. based in Wildwood.
Kids Connect currently has a footprint in the bay area with the DCF contract in Hernando, Citrus, Sumter, Marion and Lake counties.
Meanwhile, multiple foster parents forwarded 8 On Your Side a message sent to them asking for permanent placements for the Thanksgiving holiday for 40 children, including 16 who are under 12 years old. The sender called it a “severe crisis” a asked for help so that none of the children would have to spend the holiday in an office.