TAMPA — The state plans to conduct a "comprehensive review" of Hillsborough County’s foster care system after a child welfare agency lost a $9.2 million contract for leaving children unsupervised.
The review will be conducted by the Florida Department of Children and Families, which pays Eckerd Connects about $73 million per year to run the county’s child welfare system.
Earlier this week, Eckerd Connects fired Youth and Family Alternatives after it found a pattern of staff leaving older foster children alone. Teens in the care of YFA staff also spent hours in a car at a gas station so they could use its restroom and free Wi-Fi connection, according to reporting by WFLA-Ch. 8.
"The recent actions taken by a subcontractor of Eckerd Connects are 100 percent unacceptable and do not meet our high standards for how we care for children in Florida," said DCF Secretary Mike Carroll in a statement. "We will not stop till we get to the bottom of what went wrong and what changes need to be made to make sure this never happens again."
The state review marks a new level of concern over Hillsborough, which has struggled to cope with a high number of children in care.
In 2016, 43 children, mostly older teens, had to sleep in offices and other unlicensed locations.
In May, Eckerd Connects terminated a $500,000 contract with Camelot Community Care to run the Ybor Heights teen center, which is used to temporarily house and supervise children entering foster care.
One of the county’s biggest problems is dealing with older teens, including those released from detention centers or expelled from schools, said Roy Miller, president and founder of the Children’s Campaign, a Tallahassee non-profit.
Before DCF’s announcement, the group on Friday called for an independent investigation into how children were left unsupervised and whether agencies knew.
He said the governing boards of Eckerd Connects and YFA have failed to hold top executives accountable. YFA should not be terminated before a full investigation is complete, he said.
"The community was promised reform, and children have gone from sleeping in offices and hotel rooms, and now they’re in parking lots," he said. "The response (from Eckerd ) is always the same: blame the contractor, fire the contractor, not proposing solutions."
In one incident cited by Eckerd, a teenage girl was dropped off early on Jan. 24 in front of an Eckerd office in Tampa alone, hungry and crying. That led to a YFA employee being reported to the state abuse hotline.
But Eckerd Connects and YFA officials do not agree on what led to teenagers being left alone or sitting outside a gas station.
Spokeswoman Lisa Brock said while YFA provides case managers, it is the job of Eckerd Connects to find foster or group homes.
"In terms of responsibility when a kid doesn’t have a placement, we don’t have a choice," she said. "We can turn the kids loose on the street but we don’t think that’s a good idea. That how they ended up in offices and cars because we had no place to put them."
Eckerd Connects spokesman Doug Tobin said the agency welcomes a review.
"Eckerd Connects will never condone children spending extended periods of time in cars or offices when they should be in school or a foster home," he said.