DCF demands action plan from Eckerd after 8 on Your Side foster care investigation

TAMPA, Fla. (WFLA) – Violence and recurring police responses to an after-hours foster care teen center in Tampa, first revealed in an 8 on Your Side investigation, have now helped spark a call to action from Florida’s Department of Children and Families.

Related concerns surfaced this week in a Community Alliance meeting involving foster kids being kept at the teen center until 11 p.m. on a regular basis, then transported elsewhere to sleep.

Wednesday, DCF sent Eckerd Community Alternatives a letter stating “It has come to our attention that the teen center, utilized for foster children under case management of Youth and Family Alternatives (YFA), continues to experience issues related to the lack of appropriate placements for some teens.”

DCF’s Regional Managing Director Lisa Mayrose goes on to say “Please deliver a plan that outlines how Eckerd intends to redefine the function of the teen center and how you will handle those teens who were at the facility after hours.”

That DCF letter arrived the same day that Eckerd Community Alternatives, also known as Eckerd Kids, announced it had fired the contractor that runs that teen center for foster kids in Tampa, that has been the subject of 136 police reports since January, and a fight that sent two teens and a caseworker to the hospital early Saturday.

Read the letter from the DCF

Eckerd Kids announced Wednesday it was terminating Camelot Community Care’s teen center contract and stopping the practice of using the teen center as an after-hours holding pen for foster teens. But, DCF wants more.

Mayrose is calling for Eckerd to clarify, by the end of business Friday, what it plans to do with the teen center and how it will handle the foster teens that still go there during regular hours of operation.

She also ends with a threat to underline the seriousness of the issue. “Failure to implement appropriate measures to consistently provide safe and appropriate placements for all children under your care will result in a corrective action plan and possibly termination of your contract,” Mayrose writes.

Eckerd receives $73 million a year from DCF to provide foster care for nearly 3700 children in Hillsborough County. The private social services agency released a statement late Wednesday that said “Eckerd Kids has made numerous attempts to improve the performance of Camelot’s Teen Center. Because of that, the contract was put up for bid last month, but only Camelot responded.”

The Eckerd statement went on on to say We see no other alternative but to close the portion of the facility that provides after-hour services to foster children…We believe this move will provide the best environment for our foster children, which is our number one goal.”

That change also follows a disclosure that surfaced at a Community Alliance meeting Tuesday, that Eckerd had been routinely sending some foster teens to the facility to hang out on a daily basis, where they would stay until 11 p.m. before being shipped somewhere else to sleep before going to school the following day.

Child advocate Robin Rosenberg praises Eckerd as among the best private community care providers in Florida, but doesn’t like that teen center practice.

“The concept is there’s not a permanent place for them to stay at, so there’s a place for them to lay their head at night and then they have to be out first thing in the morning,” said Rosenberg. “That is traumatizing.  That is not stable and that is not something better for kids.”

Hillsborough County Commissioner Sandra Murman is a longtime advocate for children and helped create the community-based care system while she was a state lawmaker and Jeb Bush was governor.

Murman was troubled to hear how Eckerd was sending foster kids to the teen center every evening before taking them somewhere else to sleep every night.

“I have not spoken with a board member with the Eckerd board, but I want to say that I am not happy with that situation. They should not be doing that,” Murman said. “That is highly unacceptable. These kids do not—especially with all other problems these teens have—they don’t need to be bouncing around anymore.”

Murman is now trying to broker a deal between Eckerd, DCF and other social services agencies that would open up 12 vacant beds in two cottages controlled by Hillsborough County as additional space for foster kids who are hard to place. She’s troubled that hasn’t already happened, despite nine months of discussion sparked by revelations in an 8 on Your Side investigation last summer that some foster kids were sleeping in Eckerd offices, because they had nowhere else to go.

“There’s been a lot of finger pointing,” Murman said. “I’ve asked all parties to reach an agreement by Friday.”

It’s not yet clear what Eckerd is doing to respond to the various concerns raised by Murman and the DCF, but the organization has hired former WTSP-TV General Manager Elliot Wiser to serve as a public relations consultant following critical news reports focused on the teen center.

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