Tampa Bay Times

STATE HAS PLAN TO FIX CARE FOR FOSTER TEENS

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

- 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.”
DCF Secretary Mike Carroll ordered the “specialize­d oversight.”

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