Clearwater foster child says flawed system has ‘staggering’ number of children, contracts expiring

CLEARWATER, Fla. (WFLA) – Living alone in the mangroves under the Bayside Bridge in Clearwater among mosquitoes and snakes was a better option than foster care, according to Jason Pisani, who said he fled to the age 12.

Eckerd Connects and the Florida Department of Children and Families recently agreed to allow the expiration of two child welfare contracts involving three counties in the Tampa Bay area, ending a relationship marred by issues such as children sleeping in desks and waiting long hours in cars for foster care placements.

8 On Your Side exposed many of these issues and prompted Eckerd to terminate a key subcontractor, but the issues persisted.

Pisani, now 18, said his stay in foster care began when he was around 9 and involved several “horrific placements”, including a short stint with a foster family.

“He started hitting me,” Pisani said. “I wasn’t good enough, I guess. Mom didn’t do anything.

The DCF removed him from that house, Pisani said, and soon after he was living with a foster family he said met his needs.

“When the lady of the state came to take me to another house [on a court order,] I didn’t want to go, ”Pisani said. “I just ran away. I ran in the mud. I cut a place in the mangroves with a pocket knife and hid.

He said he lived in the wild for about three days until he heard his adoptive mother cry out for him, claiming the judge overturned the order. Pisani remained in this foster home until he recently aged out of the system when he was 18. But he said the damage was done.

“The system is broken. The kids are just numbers and they’re pushing so hard for adoption, even if it’s not a good fit, ”Pisani said. “When I was in the mangroves, I asked myself, ‘Why is this happening to me? Why don’t I have a choice? “

An 8 On Your Side survey in March found that office placements were still being used by Eckerd and more recently a desperate message to foster parents said there were still too many children and not enough beds. .

“Unfortunately, we again have an overwhelming number of children in need of placement,” an Eckerd staff member wrote in the post. “We are so desperate that even if you could help with a placement on a sofa or an air mattress, this is something we would like to discuss. “

An on-camera interview with Eckerd’s chief of community care was canceled this week after the state and the agency announced that current contracts at Pasco, Pinellas and Hillsborough would not be renewed. The Pasco and Pinellas deal ends on December 31. The Hillsborough one runs until the end of June.

Former Eckerd leader Chris Card spoke in March about the challenges the agency faces.

“These kids come to us with serious problems and trauma,” Card said. “We have limited resources in what we can invest in, but we are doing all we can. “

Few people disagree with Card in blaming limited resources for the variety of problems in the Bay Area child welfare system.

Although last month the state inspector general alleged that Card’s annual salary of just under $ 240,000 was about $ 24,000 above the executive ceiling of social service agencies under contract with the state. Eckerd responded to the state’s claim by pointing out that Card manages the main agencies of Judicial Channels 6 and 13 and receives separate salaries for each contract.

“His total salary was split evenly between two contracts and was well within state limits,” Eckerd said in a statement.

Regardless of what is to blame, Pisani said he came forward in the hope of exposing the damage of what he claims is abuse.

“I hate myself. I think I’m a horrible person. I’m too violent. I’m too angry. I take it out on everyone. I can’t help myself,” Pisani said. I hope that with the coming change in the foster care system, the children will not have to suffer like me. ”

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