Eckerd Connects admits Hillsborough foster kids slept in Wawa parking lot 7 times last fall

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TAMPA, Fla. (WFLA) — Eckerd Connect’s top executive Lorita Shirley confirmed Tuesday she knew months ago that at least two Hillsborough foster children spent seven nights sleeping in caseworkers’ cars in a Wawa parking lot on Waters Avenue between September and November. But Shirley took no action to end that practice by one of Eckerd’s contracted foster care providers Youth and Family Alternatives (YFA.)

An email Eckerd released Tuesday spells out how foster kids slept in the parking lot time and again.

“Eckerd was made aware in November that there was an allegation of kids at the Wawa,” said Lorita Shirley. “We looked into those allegations with our providers, Youth and Family Alternatives. They verified in writing to us that those allegations were specific to teens at night refusing placements in particular.”

In other words, she says the kids were at fault because they refused to go to whatever foster home had been selected for them on those nights.

Eckerd first found out about the Wawa allegations after an anonymous news tip sent to 8 On Your Side on Nov. 15 was automatically forwarded to Eckerd due to a fluke in WFLA’s online computer software. According to Eckerd emails we obtained today, YFA told Eckerd those kids who slept at the Wawa were unruly or violent and refused placements so caseworkers kept them in cars until after dawn and handed them off to other caseworkers or sent them to school.

After November, anonymous tipsters – almost certainly disgruntled YFA caseworkers – sent half a dozen more tips to 8 On Your Side about kids and caseworkers spending endless days and nights at that same Wawa station on Waters Ave. And those tips kept ending up in the hands of Shirley, YFA and even DCF.

DCF managers ordered Eckerd to report any placement issues. But DCF managers now say on January 25 they discovered they were not getting accurate reports.after finding out YFA and Eckerd had not acted to stop the practice of sending foster kids to the Wawa day and night, week after week, in lieu of school or foster homes.

Shirley insists the anonymous emails she kept reading lacked credibility and YFA denied to her there was a problem.

“Whenever we receive a random email we do check with our providers to see if there is any validity to what is being alleged. The difficulty is that the emails were random so we’re unable to follow up with a particular source of the information,” Shirley said.

But we checked out the same tips Shirley read by spending week after week staking out the gas station. Every time we checked – day or night – we saw foster kids confined in caseworker cars. Eventually, a foster child caught up in an unrelated neglect investigation on Jan. 25 also told Hillsborough sheriff’s investigators about spending time at the Wawa. But we still saw the practice going on Jan. 26.

In an email to The Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office Feb. 4, Shirley said she’d called an emergency meeting of YFA workers and stated concerns that YFA workers might walk out or go on strike due to growing discontent. Shirley’s emergency meeting happened one day after another anonymous email to 8 On Your Side threatened a strike.

And on Feb. 5, Shirley really hit the panic button after we started asking questions about foster kids at the Wawa station. She called for an immediate meeting with YFA.

“Please call me or have your PIO call me ASAP,” Shirley wrote.

The following week, at a packed meeting of the Hillsborough Community Alliance on Feb. 13, Shirley announced in front of dozens of child welfare workers she had been absolutely “blindsided” by our 8 On Your Side report of foster kids held at the gas station on Feb. 6 – that was three months after Shirley received the first email tip about that problem.

Tuesday, Shirley acknowledged learning about the Wawa issue early on but insisted she’d been misled by YFA, the foster care provider she fired the same day we first broadcast our Rides to Nowhere investigation.

“As I’ve indicated repeatedly before,” Shirley said Tuesday. “We did follow up with our provider who denied those allegations thank you.”

The Eckerd Connects board of directors will meet Wednesday morning but spokesman Doug Tobin says that meeting is closed to us, our cameras and the public that pays Eckerd millions of dollars to oversee child welfare in the Tampa Bay area.

We reached out to DCF asking why Eckerd is subject to public records law but apparently not public meetings law. This is the email we received as a response from a DCF spokeswoman:

Statement:DCF has zero tolerance for any children in the care of case management organizations spending extended periods of time in cars, offices, or any other inappropriate place, and is a practice DCF will never condone. Upon receiving these allegations in November, DCF took immediate action to enforce these high standards, including requiring Eckerd to submit regular placement reports so the department could thoroughly evaluate all placement history. This January, DCF became aware that placement issues were not being appropriately reported as required, which is now part of DCF’s ongoing reviews.DCF fully expects all taxpayer dollars – including those spent by community-based care agencies – to be spent with full transparency. DCF directly contacted Eckerd to urge them to open this meeting to the public to provide full disclosure of all operations.Background:When DCF received notice in November of allegations of inappropriate foster placements, the regional team immediately reached out to Eckerd. To ensure this practice was not happening, DCF took action to re-implement required daily reporting of any placement issues, which were due to the department each week. DCF (Ms. Kuhn) required Eckerd to report any time a youth refused placement, had three or more placements in seven days, slept in a non-licensed placement, was placed in a home for sleeping only, in addition to many other details. DCF staff reviewed each case internally to monitor and evaluate each youth’s placement history, identify trends with youth struggling with placements, and ensure action was being taken by the appropriate agencies. This reporting requirement is still in place and submissions are now required daily for stricter monitoring as the reviews continue.On January 24, DCF became aware that there were placement issues that were not appropriately reported as required, which DCF’s inspector general is examining, and a child protective investigation was initiated to determine if any caregiver neglect occurred. As you know, DCF has taken aggressive action, including Secretary Carroll engaging with Eckerd leadership, to immediately ensure the appropriate placement of all children in care. Eckerd terminated YFA’s contract, and Secretary Carroll convened a comprehensive review team to examine the local system of care.

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