DCF memo: Foster children shouldn't stay in offices, motels

At first glance, Juanita Jubity’s Hyde Park condo looks like a typical home belonging to a young, single professional. But she did something unique with it: she converted a rarely used, sunny office into a bedroom for a teen in foster care.

"I had the regular, normal fears that everyone else would have -- if I could really take it on,” Jubity said. “Through the home study and licensing, credentialing process, you sort out what your deal-breakers really are.  They help to guide you on what would be the best fit for your home."

Jubity attended classes to train and has learned to work with a bevy of case workers, guardian ad litems, and counselors. The board rate of a few hundred dollars a month, along with state-provided medical care, helps meet some of the financial need. She says becoming a foster care parent hasn’t been easy, but it’s been worth it.

“I’ve seen a huge transformation,” she said of her foster child.  “Just spending the time with her, introducing her to some of my friends, taking her to regular activities like Busch Gardens and bowling and church, she's really opened up and blossomed. She's a new person."      

More than 300 foster homes like Jubity’s are needed in order to meet the current demand for foster care placements, according to Eckerd, the agency contracted by the Department of Children and Families to provide foster care services in Tampa Bay.

"Many people don't understand that there's abuse, neglect and abandonment of children going on in their own community,” said Brian Bostick, Eckerd director for Pasco and Pinellas counties. "A foster parent looks like you or I -- that's who they look like."

The system is stretched statewide. In June, DCF Secretary Mike Carroll sent a memo to Eckerd and other agencies to “reinforce the Department’s expectation” that children shouldn’t be placed in motels or offices long-term.

“Recently, it has been brought to my attention….that dependent children and case management staff have been required to sleep in offices and hotels overnight with children due to a limited availability of foster homes and therapeutic placements,” Carroll said in the memo,  obtained by FOX 13 through a public records request.

DCF spokesperson Michelle Gladys said the motel and office places are “extremely rare,” but added the state is trying to get the word out about the need for foster care families, especially those who are able to take in sibling sets and teens.

Children haven’t been placed in offices and motels in Pasco and Pinellas counties because of a lack of foster homes, according to Bostick, but the need is great. As of Tuesday, there were only four beds for teens available in traditional homes in Pasco and Pinellas. 

Eckerd spokesperson Terri Durdaller said as of Tuesday, there are 15 beds available for teens in traditional homes in Hillsborough County, though some foster care advocates say that number seems high. Durdaller has not yet provided data showing how they reached that number. 

Teens will be placed in a residential care group home when a traditional foster care home placement isn’t available, even if they do not have special needs to warrant a stay in a group home, according to Eckerd employees. When there are no beds available in either group homes or traditional homes, local agencies must find placements outside the local community.

There are nearly 400 teens currently in the foster care system in the three counties.

"They're very vulnerable. They've been abused, abandoned and neglected. They need someone who is there to support them and give them guidance during this very traumatic experience,” Bostick said. “The average Joe can be a foster parent.”

Editor’s note: The day after our story aired, Eckerd provided data showing there were only two spots available in traditional foster homes for teen girls, and four for boys. Durdaller says she counted “respite beds” -- temporary placements intended for foster parents who go on vacation -- when she reported there were 15 spots available.