A Pinellas County mother is suing Eckerd Connects, the state’s Department of Children and Families, and her son’s former foster parent after she said her son was molested while in foster care.
According to court documents filed last month in Pinellas County, Robert Metzner, a licensed foster parent, cared for the then-8-year-old boy during December 2018. One week into caring for him, police removed the boy from the home after he told his mother Metzner touched his penis multiple times.
Molestation charges were dropped after the boy recanted his statement and prosecutors said there was a lack of evidence, according to a USA Today article from October 2020. Despite this, Eckerd allowed Metzner to continue fostering children once the investigation was completed the following March. Another boy accused Metzner of molestation a month later, after being in his care for less than two weeks. A search of Metzner’s home found a USB drive with more than 160 images of child porn, the documents said. An Eckerd spokesperson said that’s when Metzner’s home was closed for foster care.
Child care experts say sexually assaulted children often recant statements out of shame or fear.
The Pinellas mother, identified in court records as J.D., maintains her son was molested and permanently traumatized by Metzner. She said Eckerd and DCF were negligent and knowingly lax in investigating Metzner’s past.
“Between 2015 and 2018, ECA (Eckerd) and DCF further knew or should have known that there were deficiencies in addressing the needs and identifying services for children in out-of-home care in Pinellas, Pasco and Hillsborough Counties, including deficiencies in addressing mental health, behavioral and mental health needs,” the suit alleged. “Between 2015 and 2018, ECA and DCF knew or should have known of problems and deficiencies in ECA’s provision of child welfare case management services in Pinellas, Pasco and/or Hillsborough Counties which jeopardized the safety of children.”
J.D. said if Eckerd and DCF had done their due diligence properly, Metzner should’ve been disqualified. The suit alleges Metzner, who is in his 70s, had a troubling history when he applied. Nurses who helped Metzner care for his adult son — he suffered a traumatic brain injury — said the man was verbally abusive to them and had an obsession with young male characters on TV.
One nurse reported Metzner’s behavior to police four months before he was approved as a foster parent and Pinellas Schools dropped Metzner as a lunch mentor over inappropriate conversations he had with two middle school boys.
Representatives for Eckerd maintain Metzner “did not have any disqualifying or concerning issues identified in his background checks.”
In November, DCF announced it was dropping Eckerd as the lead foster care agency in Tampa Bay. Eckerd said it was planning to leave the system anyway. DCF put Eckerd on notice in early 2020 after mounting complaints of negligence, mismanaged care and children placed in dangerous situations.
Recent months have seen a rash of reports outlining safety concerns including unsanitary living conditions and allegations of sexual crimes committed against children while in Eckerd’s care.
DCF did not comment on the case, but earlier this month, DCF Secretary Shevaun Harris acknowledged the organization had a lot to learn from the Eckerd fallout.
“One of the takeaways for us to really look at is, when is enough enough? How many chances are too many? That’s something we need to have a deeper conversation about, absolutely, because there were red flags prior,” Harris told a panel of state legislators. “It’s always important to look inward. I’ve had conversations with my leadership team. We’re looking at how we could have done things differently in terms of ramping up our monitoring. I think the strides made with the quality office is a huge first step. But there’s so much more that we can be doing and we are readying ourselves to do so now and in the future.”
Eckerd Connects and DCF declined to comment further.
January 25, 2022 at 4:47 pm
I emailed you personally about an incident directly associated with this article and Robert Metzner.
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