TAMPA (WFLA) – For years, 8 On Your Side Investigates has reported on the plight of children in Florida’s foster care system. Now, there’s a new place for foster kids in Hillsborough County to spend their days.
In the past, the children and teenagers were sometimes forced to spend hours sitting in gas station parking lots. That practice ended after an 8 On Your Side investigation in 2018.
Still, the problem remained: where do you take children without a place to go during the day?
Now, Eckerd Connects, one of the largest private companies hired by the state to oversee foster kids, thinks they have found the solution.
“The children need to be supervised during the day, they’re not capable of just being okay on their own,” said Dr. Chris Card.
“Sometimes that’s age but most of the time it’s their behavior pattern.”
Since the spring of 2018, Dr. Card has overseen foster care programs in Hillsborough, Pinellas and Pasco counties for Eckerd Connects. He’s in charge of approximately seven thousand children.
According to Dr. Card, just a handful of kids with nowhere else to go during the day, now stay at a two-story home in Seminole Heights.
“During that day, they’re doing recreational, they’re doing educational, vocational life skills training with these kids,” said Dr. Card.
Some people in the community were surprised after the facility popped up next door.
“Nobody seems to know what’s going on in that house,” said neighbor Susan Ladika, “nobody seems to care all that much what’s going on in that house.”
Ladika, who lives a few doors down, says neighbors were never notified of the facility.
In March, she started to witness several alarming incidents. One day, Ladika says she saw a young girl running away from the home before she was stopped by force.
“The boy and the woman grabbed the girl by her hand’s and feet and carried her back to the house like a sack of potatoes,” she said.
In the coming months, there would be more kids, cars and strange episodes.
“I’m loading groceries in my car, and I start to hear a girl screaming,” said Ladika. That incident occurred in May.
Each time, Ladika says she called the police. She feared that children were being abused or trafficked. She also made calls to city and state agencies.
“What’s going on? Who are these people?” she said.
“Who is operating this house? What their training is?”
According to Dr. Card, the home is run by an Eckerd Connects subcontractor called Grace of Hope. Workers get a background check and training.
“We call a lot of our training trauma-informed care, which means you understand that this child is going to have certain behavior types because of the trauma,” he said.
Right now, Grace of Hope is in the process of getting a license.
They’ve been collaborating with Eckerd Connects less than a year. Dr. Card says other similar agencies do have a license.
“We’ve closed in on what kind of license we want them to get, and they’re ready, willing and able to work on that.”
Neighbors were also alarmed by the number of times police have been called to the scene.
According to the Tampa Police Department, they’ve been called out to the home more than 40 times since November. It’s mostly runaway or Baker Act calls. However, there’s also battery and criminal mischief.
“It’s not abnormal for the police to be called for programs where we serve these kids,” said Dr. Card.
Caretakers are required to call the police for various incidents. For example, police must respond every single time a teenager walks away.
Dr. Card encourages the community to welcome the children.
8 On Your Side Investigates will continue to follow this story.