STATE HAS PLAN TO FIX CARE FOR FOSTER TEENS

The state is send­ing two ex­perts to help Eck­erd Con­nects im­prove care of foster teens.

Tampa Bay Times - - Front Page - BY CHRISTO­PHER O’DON­NELL Times Staff Writer

Eck­erd Con­nects, the agency that runs child wel­fare in Hills­bor­ough County, has come un­der fire for not pro­vid­ing enough sta­bil­ity for teenagers in foster care and for its man­age­ment of its fi­nances. The Florida Depart­ment of Chil­dren and Fam­i­lies said that it is re­quir­ing “spe­cial­ized over­sight” of Eck­erd Con­nects to ad­dress “de­fi­cien­cies.” DCF plans to send two ex­perts to work on-site at Eck­erd to im­prove how it re­cruits foster par­ents and places teenagers, and to iden­tify ad­min­is­tra­tive costs that could be cut. This is the first ac­tion taken by a panel of ex­perts as­sem­bled to re­view the foster care sys­tem.

TAMPA — The agency that runs child wel­fare in Hills­bor­ough County has come un­der fire from the state for fail­ing to pro­vide enough sta­bil­ity for teenagers in foster care and for its man­age­ment of its fi­nances.

The Florida Depart­ment of Chil­dren and Fam­i­lies an­nounced Fri­day that it is re­quir­ing “spe­cial­ized over­sight” of Eck­erd Con­nects to ad­dress “de­fi­cien­cies.” DCF plans to send two ex­perts to work on-site at Eck­erd to im­prove how it re­cruits foster par­ents and places teenagers, and to iden­tify ad­min­is­tra­tive costs that could be cut.

The move is the first ac­tion taken by a 10-mem­ber panel of ex­perts as­sem­bled by the state in Fe­bru­ary to re­view the county’s foster care sys­tem. It was prompted by a rash of mis­steps that in­cluded teenagers be­ing left un­su­per­vised or spend­ing sev­eral hours sit­ting with a case man­ager at a gas sta­tion park­ing lot.

“We have zero tol­er­ance for any man­age­ment or prac­tices that could re­sult in any­thing less than ex­cel­lent care for the chil­dren and fam­i­lies we serve,” DCF Sec­re­tary Mike Car­roll said in a pre­pared state­ment. “These ini­tial ac­tions will en­sure that no time is wasted in cor­rect­ing de­fi­cien­cies that must be im­me­di­ately reme­died.”

Of par­tic­u­lar con­cern for DCF is the plight of about 35 teenagers who are bounced al­most daily from home to home, usu­ally stay­ing just to sleep be­fore they are moved again. Some of those chil­dren have crim­i­nal records and have re­fused to live in group homes.

Eck­erd Con­nects has al­ready be­gun ef­forts to ad­dress some of the is­sues. Last month it held a spe­cial meet­ing with other child wel­fare agen­cies to brain­storm ideas to pro­vide more foster beds and to re­duce costs.

“Eck­erd Con­nects ac­knowl­edges that there are chal­lenges in this sys-

tem and we wel­come the as­sis­tance of the con­sul­tants rec­om­mended by the peer re­view team,” spokesman Doug Tobin said. “It is our com­mit­ment to em­brace the rec­om­men­da­tions of the re­view team and en­gage the en­tire com­mu­nity to im­prove the care of our chil­dren and fam­i­lies.”

The two DCF ap­pointees are Joyce Tay­lor, a for­mer deputy com­mis­sioner at the Con­necti­cut Depart­ment of Chil­dren and Fam­i­lies, and Melissa Jaacks, a for­mer DCF as­sis­tant sec­re­tary for ad­min­is­tra­tion and ac­coun­tant.

The state will pay their salaries although it has not yet re­leased de­tails such as how long they’ll work with the agency.

Tay­lor will work with Eck­erd Con­nects of­fi­cials to try to cre­ate more sta­bil­ity for teenagers placed in foster care. The agency must also find more foster par­ents who can cope with teens with be­hav­ioral is­sues, in­crease the num­ber of foster beds and im­prove how case man­agers jug­gle their work­load.

Jaacks’ as­sign­ment is to help Eck­erd Con­nects staff make a sound fi­nan­cial plan and re­duce its ad­min­is­tra­tive over­head.

The non­profit has re­ported a deficit over at least the past two years. An­other con­cern is a pur­chas­ing sys­tem that has led to de­lays in pay­ing firms that pro­vide treat­ment for foster chil­dren.

The state awarded Eck­erd Con­nects $77 mil­lion for its Hills­bor­ough op­er­a­tion in 2018. About $18 mil­lion of that goes to pay fam­i­lies who adopted chil­dren from foster care.

In Fe­bru­ary, Eck­erd of­fi­cials said they were fac­ing a $4.1 mil­lion short­fall and called on the state to help by award­ing money made avail­able from the fol­low­ing year’s state bud­get. They cited a 44 per­cent rise in the num­ber of chil­dren in care over the past three years, which the agency said is the re­sult of the state’s opi­oid epi­demic and high rates of do­mes­tic abuse. Al­most 4,000 Hills­bor­ough chil­dren are ei­ther in foster care or at risk of be­ing re­moved from their par­ents’ cus­tody.

A pat­tern of leav­ing foster teens un­su­per­vised led Eck­erd Con­nects to fire sub­con­trac­tor Young and Fam­ily Al­ter­na­tives from a $9.2 mil­lion con­tract in Fe­bru­ary.

In some cases, teenagers were left to wan­der around a mall dur­ing school days. YFA was re­ported to the Hills­bor­ough County Sher­iff ’s Of­fice, which is still in­ves­ti­gat­ing whether the lack of su­per­vi­sion amounts to ne­glect.

The 10-mem­ber panel re­view­ing the county’s foster care sys­tem is un­likely to is­sue a fi­nal re­port un­til that in­ves­ti­ga­tion is con­cluded. In ad­di­tion, DCF has in­structed its In­spec­tor Gen­eral’s of­fice to re­view whether Eck­erd Con­nects failed to re­port when chil­dren slept in un­li­censed fa­cil­i­ties.

DCF Sec­re­tary Mike Car­roll or­dered the “spe­cial­ized over­sight.”

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