Eckerd will step down if blue ribbon panel says ‘quit’ after review of foster care failures in Hillsborough

HILLSBOROUGH COUNTY, Fla. (WFLA) – Eckerd Connects’ Chief of Community-Based Care Lorita Shirley said Tuesday Eckerd will step down from its $73 million contract as Hillsborough County’s lead foster care agency if a blue ribbon panel appointed by the DCF Secretary concludes it’s time for that agency to go due to recurring failures in the foster care system. “I can assure our board will be the first to say to the department we will work with you to hand this contract back over so that we can get another provider in place that can do it effectively,” Shirley said.

Shirley blamed many of the recent problems on misinformation given to Eckerd by its subcontracted foster case management organization Youth and Family Alternatives (YFA), while at the same time praising YFA for its past work. Eckerd fired YFA from it’s $10 million contract and is conducting an emergency search for another provider to takeover care for 1700 kids in 90 days.

Critics say Eckerd itself has provided little support for its subcontractors and is quick to blame the agencies it is supposed to oversee when things go wrong. Critics also say Eckerd been plagued by turnover in the executive ranks—seven department directors and three executive directors in the past five years or so. Eckerd is currently searching for an executive director while Shirley is filling in. “I don’t see our lead agency as in turmoil,” Shirley said. “I see Eckerd as a very stable organization.”

Shirley spent several hours Tuesday fielding questions and defending her agency at a meeting of the Hillsborough Community Alliance that focused on failures including those exposed by an 8 On Your Side investigation last week. 

Our investigation uncovered foster kids spending day after day cramped into caseworkers’ cars in the parking lot of a Wawa gas station on Waters Avenue instead of attending school, receiving therapy or going to foster homes.”“We were blindsided by the fact kids weren’t attending school during the day and spending their days at Wawa absolutely,” Shirley said. “We were not blindsided by the issue of kids refusing placement at night we were fully aware of that.”

Shirley later acknowledged Eckerd heard about YFA was warehousing foster teens at Wawa from a foster child on Jan. 24, and learned of two kids kept at Wawa last November to “de-escalate” their unruly behavior. Shirley says Eckerd failed to act in November because YFA insisted it was an isolated incident. Shirley personally called the state abuse hotline on Jan. 24 when another foster child was “abandoned” in front of the Eckerd Family Center by a YFA worker. ThAT lead to the disclosure that YFA was turning troublesome foster kids loose in the community on a regular basis without any supervision or requirement to attend school.

At Tuesday’s meeting the YFA worker involve din the January 24 incident, Sharday Moore – who was fired because of it – fiercely defended her actions by insisting she was following instructions of a supervisor at YFA. Moore chastised Eckerd and YFA. “it looks like a blame game,”Moore said. “I was terminated in a sense for doing my job.” 

This week, DCF Secretary Mike Carroll announced he’s sending in a team of nine child welfare experts to find out why the system is failing foster kids it is supposed to protect.

Carroll also told 8 On Your Side Monday there is an inspector general investigation underway as well as an abuse investigation by the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office related to the abandonment of foster kids by caseworkers cited by Shirley.

Last week, Eckerd Connects – the lead agency hired by DCF to oversee foster care in Hillsborough – fired Youth and Family Alternatives, the sole provider of case managers for more than 1,700 foster kids in the county. Two other agencies handle the balance of the 4,000 foster children in Hillsborough.

Shirley was in charge in 2016 when 8 On Your Side uncovered dozens of foster kids sleeping in offices and last year when we exposed repeated brawls and the beating of a caseworker in a foster care teen center, and now the Wawa debacle. In all three cases, Eckerd blamed and terminated the subcontractors it hired to provide those services.

Critics say Eckerd has cycled through three executive directors and seven department heads in the past five years. Eckerd is currently searching for a new executive director, a role now filled by Shirley. But Shirley insists Eckerd is a stable agency and is not suffering from management turmoil that gets in the way of caring for foster kids.

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