Foster kids kept in cars at Wawa parking lot in Hillsborough County

HILLSBOROUGH COUNTY, Fla. (WFLA) – In a month-long investigation of foster care in Hillsborough County, 8 On Your Side has discovered a disturbing practice of keeping foster kids in cars day and night at a Wawa gas station because they had nowhere else to go.

One day after we started asking questions, Eckerd Connects fired its contractor, Youth and Family Alternatives, the provider of that foster care, citing a lack of proper supervision.

“They’re just sitting there through the night or throughout the day,” said former Youth and Family Alternatives case manager Sharday Moore.

“Some of these kids aren’t going to school. Some of these kids aren’t going to any day treatment programs. They’re not getting the things they need by sitting in cars with a case manager or a transporter each day.”

In an hour-long interview, Moore confirmed what an 8 On Your Side investigation had already uncovered a month earlier.

As many as a dozen hard to place foster teens are forced to spend their days confined to cars in the Wawa parking lot on Waters Avenue in Tampa while their caseworkers try to find them a bed to sleep in for the night.

Moore says she was fired from YFA last week after an incident involving an unruly and threatening 17-year-old foster girl who she delivered to the Eckerd Family Center in Tampa.

That teenager was “hungry and crying” according to an Eckerd press release, even though Moore insists she had just taken the girl to Burger King for a meal before the girl’s behavior spun out of control.

Moore says the children who end up at Wawa day after day are banned from the offices of Youth and Family Alternatives which provides foster care to more than 1700 foster kids in Hillsborough County. Eckerd contracts with two other agencies to handle about 2300 more foster kids.

She says due to bad behavior, those teens are sent to the Wawa where they are kept calm by spending countless hours listening to music through the Wawa WiFi and when necessary, using the Wawa bathroom.

Once in a while caseworkers dig into their own pockets to buy them a fast food meal.

“That’s completely wrong in my book because that child is then suffering. They’re not getting things that are needed. They’re not getting adequate mental health treatment that some of them need, trauma-informed base care,” Moore said. “They’re not getting adequate eating. They’re not getting the adequate sleep that they’re needing. They’re not getting rest.”

Moore isn’t the only one disturbed by YFA turning the Wawa parking lot into a home away from home for troublesome foster teens.

Hillsborough County Commissioner Sandy Murman is furious.

“It just brings tears to my eyes, absolutely, that we have girls getting out of cars one after another using Wawa for a bathroom, for exercise, for food. I mean this is just not right and absolutely to the top somebody needs to be held accountable for this.”

Former foster child Maria Young now advocates for foster kids and was horrified when we told her about YFA’s use of the Wawa gas station to warehouse kids between placements.

“What if that child was injured or abused or raped by somebody who just happens to show up at that gas station,” Young said. “This is not right and something needs to be done about it.”

Murman says she contacted DCF Secretary Mike Carroll after our interview Monday and he also expressed concern.

Tuesday, Eckerd announced it was terminating the YFA foster care contract in Hillsborough County, effective May 7, due to concerns over supervision and cited a specific incident involving Sharday Moore that sparked an abandonment investigation after Eckerd’s regional manager called the abuse hotline.

There was no mention of YFA using the Wawa as a way station for foster kids.

Late Tuesday, YFA released a statement saying “It is with deep regret that we must accept the decision by Eckerd to terminate our contract…we want to express a steadfast commitment to provide the very best care for children and teens, including the most troubled…we will be working closely with Eckerd to make the transition as smooth as possible for all of the staff involved.”

Lisa Brock with YFA also released a statement, saying:

It is with deep regret that we must accept the decision by Eckerd Connects to terminate our contract. We understand that this news segment will not be able to tell the entire story of the most complicated teens we serve. Still, we want to express a steadfast commitment to provide the very best care for children and teens, including the most troubled. We believe that the best answers to address this small group of the total population of children and teens served, will come only when a collective and collaborative discussion is had about how to bring innovation to the extremely complicated challenges of deeply troubled teens who live in the care of the system. We will be working closely with Eckerd to make the transition as smooth as possible for all of the staff involved. Our immediate need at this time is to work with our dedicated and hardworking staff as we absorb this
news of termination.

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