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State dispatches nine experts to probe Hillsborough’s foster care troubles

TAMPA — A pattern of leaving teens in foster care unsupervised has already cost a local child welfare agency a $9.2 million contract.

But that may just be the beginning of the fallout. The Florida Department of Children and Families on Monday released details of a plan for an intensive review of Hillsborough County’s foster care system.

DCF has assembled a team of nine child welfare experts to identify "systemic issues," including why the county removes more children than any other and how it cares for difficult-to-place older teens.

Eckerd Connects, the county’s lead agency, last week fired nonprofit group Youth and Family Alternatives after finding instances of staff leaving older foster children alone. Eckerd Connects reported the agency to the state’s abuse hotline and the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office.

"We will hold anyone who has failed our children fully accountable," said DCF Secretary Mike Carroll.

Hillsborough’s will be only the third foster care system to come under the scrutiny of a review team since Carroll became secretary in early 2014. He said the recent problems may be the result of the county having the state’s highest foster child population.

Almost 4,000 Hillsborough children are either in foster care or at risk of being removed.

"They have a disproportionate number of kids coming into care and a finite number of resources to deal with that," Carroll said. "We have to understand what is happening in that circuit if we’re going to fix that moving forward."

Older teens, some of whom have been expelled from schools or released from juvenile detentions centers, have been a particular challenge.

In 2016, 43 children, mostly older teens, had to sleep in offices and other unlicensed locations because foster beds couldn’t be found. That led DCF to deploy an oversight team to conduct daily monitoring and on-site visits of Eckerd Connects sites.

In May, Eckerd Connects terminated a $500,000 contract with Camelot Community Care to run the Ybor Heights teen center after a case manager was injured and a teenager was arrested. That was one of 13 disturbance calls and 57 runaway reports at the center.

In 2016, DCF ordered Eckerd Connects to inform the state when it had difficulties placing children. It relaxed that requirement after reports showed the agency seemed to have the problem under control.

"The reports appear to be not accurate and that is a frustration," Carroll said.

The review will look at all levels of the system, including child protective investigations, counseling and other services being offered to families, the number of foster beds available and the number of children removed from homes.

The team includes Lee Kaywork, a retired CEO of Family Support Services of North Florida, and former dependency Judge James Seals.

They are expected to interview older foster children, officials from Youth and Family Alternatives, child protective investigators, judges, case managers and Guardian ad Litem officials.

The review should also look at how DCF manages its subcontractors, said Robin Rosenberg, deputy director of Florida’s Children First, a statewide advocacy organization focused on children’s rights

State lawmakers privatized child welfare over a period of several years through 2005. Prior to that it was run by DCF.

Now, DCF contracts with a lead agency like Eckerd Connects, which in turn contracts with other care agencies to provide case managers and social services and meet other needs.

That shift has made it tougher to hold people accountable and maintain oversight of the system, Rosenberg said.

"If the team that DCF has pulled together can make recommendations for improvements in the management and oversight of contracts, our children will be better served," she said.

Contact Christopher O’Donnell at [email protected] or (813) 226-3446. Follow @codonnell_Times

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