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Officials working to keep tabs on 2,000 foster children in a time of change

TAMPA — The fallout when a child welfare agency left foster teens unsupervised spread way beyond the loss of a $9 million contract.

Around 2,000 foster children were under the watch of case managers at Youth and Family Alternatives, which was fired in February by Eckerd Connects, which runs foster care in the Tampa Bay area.

Now, officials are scrambling to ensure there is no disruption in the level of care for those children, most of whom will soon become the responsibility of Directions for Living, a Pinellas non-profit.

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Directions on Friday was awarded a contract for roughly $7.2 million to take over from YFA. It will provide case managers for about 1,200 Hillsborough children beginning May 8.

Existing agencies Devereux and Gulf Coast Jewish Family and Community Services will also take up the slack by accepting more children.

Many of YFA’s case managers are likely to stay on under new management. There just aren’t enough qualified case managers in Tampa Bay, and rehiring them ensures children remain under the direct care of staff familiar with their home situation, officials said.

Case managers are at the frontline of child welfare, shepherding children and parents through a complex and sometimes bewildering dependency system. Their job is to reunite children with their parents or move them toward permanent adoption.

In between, they must also ensure children get the care they need from foster parents, relatives or group homes.

Gulf Coast has already hired 12 new case managers to handle children transferring from YFA.

Directions chief executive April Lott said it was too soon to know how many case managers it would need. The group is working with Eckerd Connects and YFA to make the transition as "smooth as possible," she said.

The high turnover of case managers in Hillsborough has been a concern for the Florida Department of Children and Families since Eckerd Connects reduced the number of agencies it works with from six to four in 2015, and, later, to three.

With the number of Hillsborough children removed spiking in the past two years, caseloads have risen and there has been higher turnover of case managers, a 2016 DCF report found.

Eckerd officials point to their hiring of extra case managers — up to 215 compared to 169 in 2012. But they acknowledge that finding permanent placements for some children, especially older teens who refuse group homes, has been a problem in the past two years.

Their plight led DCF to order a review of the county’s child welfare system, which is expected to conclude in May.

Choosing Directions is intended to help address that issue. In addition to case management, the Pinellas group provides behavioral health services for children.

"We believe we have a skilled provider coming in that we’ll be able to effectively address some of the behaviors that have presented as challenges," said Lorita Shirley, Eckerd Connects chief of community based care.

Directions has provided case management in Pinellas County since 2004.

The agency came under fire for its handling of the case of William Hendrickson IV, an 8-month-old boy who died in a sweltering Largo trailer in July while in the care of his erratic father. A Florida Department of Children and Families investigation found that a case manager who visited the home one day before the boy’s death failed to take needed action.

Shirley called the incident a one-off, saying well-intentioned case managers don’t always make decisions that would be endorsed by their organization.

"We were very please with how the CEO handled that and with the responses of the leadership," she said. "We believe that this is isolated and doesn’t represent how they generally operate."

The transition from YFA has also meant informing foster parents, caregivers and child dependency judges about the management changes.

Eckerd Connects plans to establish a special group of case managers to handle hard-to-place teenagers and is looking for a separate agency to take on that team, Shirley said.

Contact Christopher O’Donnell at [email protected] or (813) 226-3446. Follow @codonnell_Times

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