More Needed to Solve Hillsborough’s Foster Care Crisis

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No matter the industry, it is generally a mark of leadership to take responsibility, not point fingers, when matters go south. Captains are admired for going down with their ships. It’s also why Bear Bryant, University of Alabama’s legendary football coach from 1958-1982, continues to inspire even today.

When asked about his leadership style, Bear simply said, “There’s just three things I’d ever say. If anything goes bad, I did it. If anything goes semi-good, then we did it. If anything goes real good, then you did it.”

To get to the bottom of Hillsborough County’s continuing foster care problems, such leadership is needed. About two years ago, investigative news reporting exposed that foster children were sleeping in offices because no other placements were available. Eckerd Connects, the community-based lead agency for child welfare, terminated a subcontractor and promised reform.

Going from Bad to Worse

Last week, however, it was again revealed through investigative news reporting that the problems have continued. Rather than sleeping in offices, children now were idling away the hours with case managers from Youth & Family Alternatives in Eckerd Connects fleet cars at a Wawa gas station. Some were driven aimlessly on highways.

Worse, news stories disclosed that both organizations knew these types of “placements” were occurring for quite some time. Florida Department of Children & Families Secretary Mike Carroll is right in declaring this is “100% unacceptable.” Not just for those who knew and allowed it to continue, but also for those who should have known.

In response to the negative publicity, Eckerd Connects once again pointed fingers at its subcontractor, announcing YFA’s contract was being terminated effective May 7th.

Problem solved, right? Not so fast.

Concerns Over History Repeating Itself without Deeper Investigation

Not getting to the core of the problem was a common concern we heard from knowledgeable individuals throughout the state (privately, of course, due to fears of losing contracts for “stepping out of line”). It’s too common a fear, whether real or perceived, in Florida’s community-based care approach.

In response, The Children’s Campaign has called for the following actions:

  1. The board of directors of Eckerd Connects and Youth & Family Alternatives must hold their executives accountable. Under community-based care, the child welfare lead agencies and providers are governed by volunteer boards of directors. The Eckerd Connects | Community Alternatives Hillsborough board and YFA board have been silent publicly since this crisis was exposed. These boards must immediately conduct their internal reviews, report their findings publicly, reprimand their executives and take other appropriate disciplinary action. We are not calling for termination. We do believe that public reprimands and appropriate suspensions are options.
  2. Simultaneously, the Florida Department of Children & Families (DCF) has agreed with us and will conduct an independent and full investigation. To be effective, the investigation must reveal who knew what when? Who should have known? Based on the outcome of the investigation, we call on DCF to levy fines or other punitive measures as appropriate and contractually permitted against ALL responsible organizations.
  3. DCF should not terminate Eckerd at this time and Eckerd should not terminate YFA without this full independent investigation. Youth & Family Alternatives and Eckerd have long and honorable service histories to these communities. Terminating contracts creates huge upheavals to the children served, employees and service networks, and does little to solve the underlying placement and treatment problems. It may also give the appearance of a solution without appropriate research and analysis being finalized.
  4. A suitable and applicable solution should be developed immediately and presented by the CBC Lead Agency to the community for review and public comment before the previously announced May 7th contract termination. As part of this solution, Eckerd Connects, as the lead agency, should convene a public meeting to discuss the foster care shortages and the role of group homes. Since this is a community problem, a community conversation is necessary. The underlying tug of war between those who believe only traditional foster homes should be available and those who believe some children are better suited for group homes is part of the problem causing placement shortages.
  5. The media should continue its investigations to help the Tampa Bay community get to the true bottom of this crisis.

Leadership Demonstrated at the State Level

DCF Secretary Mike Carroll’s promise to 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” is the right message. Governor Rick Scott also promised DCF will hold people accountable. Their continued attention is critical.

Eckerd Connects, the lead agency in Hillsborough, Pasco and Pinellas counties for community-based child welfare, must also demonstrate similar leadership, accountability and transparency. Despite accepting over $100 million annually in public funds, it has yet to be forthcoming with the community. For example, its social media pages and website don’t even mention the issue or a promise to resolve it.

Public comments to date have been primarily finger pointing by their hired PR gunslinger, rather than thoughtful commentary from the four members of their board of directors or responsible executives.  Eckerd Connects President David Dennis, who pockets roughly $750,000 annually while foster children on his watch are warehoused at gas stations, has remained out of public view as well.

Protecting Children

Youth & Family Alternatives has admitted it “made mistakes” but they too have yet to hold their executives accountable nor have they posted on its website or social media pages a public apology or any other mention.  Its most prominent public position to date has been one of pointing out that Eckerd Connects is responsible for placements of foster children in Hillsborough County.

All of that, hopefully, will be sorted out in the investigation as it’s clear that more parties are to blame than what has been aired to date, well beyond the actions of one subcontractor.

What is sorely missing, however, and what bothers The Children’s Campaign the most, regardless of the hardships involved in providing services to troubled and traumatized children in an overburdened child welfare system, is that everyone involved must be a child advocate and speak up for children who have little voice of their own. When sight is lost that we are here to serve and protect and to view every action through the lens of the child, reform will not be the result.

Who stood tall for these children?  Who was the rock they needed? Who had the courage to speak out when all was failing?

Perhaps all involved could benefit from learning some new moves from Bear Bryant’s playbook.


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This Top Story is brought to you by Roy Miller, Karen Bonsignori and Tiffany McGlinchey

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More Needed to Solve Hillsborough’s Foster Care Crisis