Foster kids, deemed behavioral problems and shut out of the offices meant to house them, are apparently being kept in cars day and night at a Wawa gas station’s parking lot.
A Tampa television station’s monthlong investigation of foster care in Florida’s Hillsborough County has reported as many as a dozen hard-to-place foster teens were forced to spend their days confined to cars in the Tampa parking lot while their caseworkers tried to find them beds to sleep in at night.
The site was chosen because of its easy access to free Wi-Fi and bathroom facilities.
Sometimes caseworkers from Youth and Family Alternatives, the agency that is supposed to help place foster children in homes, bought them meals from the store, the investigation found. The agency currently provides foster care to more than 1,700 children in Hillsborough County.
“They’re just sitting there through the night or throughout the day,” former Youth and Family Alternatives case manager Sharday Moore told WFLA. “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.”
Moore told the station she was fired from Youth and Family Alternatives last month after an incident that involved “an unruly and threatening” 17-year-old foster girl whom she delivered to the Eckerd Family Center in Tampa. She said the children who wind up at Wawa are banned from the offices of Youth and Family Alternatives due to bad behavior.
“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 told WFLA. “They’re not getting adequate eating. They’re not getting the adequate sleep that they’re needing. They’re not getting rest.”
The WFLA 8 on Your Side report led Eckerd Connects, a child welfare agency in Hillsborough, Pasco and Pinellas counties, to terminate its Hillsborough contract with Youth and Family Alternatives. The termination is effective on May 7.
Eckerd said the agency’s unsupervised treatment of children in that county was not an isolated situation, although it did not specifically mention Youth and Family Alternatives using the Wawa parking lot as a way station for foster kids.
Hillsborough County Commissioner Sandy Murman was angered by the results of WFLA’s investigation.
“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,” she told WFLA. “I mean this is just not right and absolutely to the top somebody needs to be held accountable for this.”
On Tuesday, Youth and Family Alternatives released a statement: “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 of Youth and Family Alternatives also released a statement that added a reference to WFLA’s investigation.
“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.”