In the end, deep local roots helped Eckerd Youth Alternatives win a multimillion dollar contract to take over the care of foster children in Pinellas and Pasco counties.
The Florida Department of Children and Families on Wednesday picked the Clearwater nonprofit to replace the Sarasota YMCA, which has been overseeing foster care in the two counties for three years. The DCF decided late last year to cut ties with the YMCA after a blistering report on the agency's poor performance.
Eckerd Youth officials were cautiously optimistic Wednesday about being awarded the $49-million contract to care for 2,000 foster children in Pinellas and Pasco. The organization's board of directors must still approve the contract.
"We were impressed with the very thorough process the state undertook to reach its decision," said David Dennis, president and CEO of Eckerd Youth Alternatives Inc. "And we're looking forward to the next phase of the process."
Eckerd had been competing for the contract with Camelot Community Care, another Clearwater nonprofit.
Eckerd Youth, founded by local philanthropists Jack and Ruth Eckerd, touted its community ties, while Camelot flexed its experience. The latter is lead foster care manager in Lee, Collier, Glades, Hendry and Charlotte counties.
On Wednesday, DCF officials wrapped up final negotiations with the two agencies. Both said they would consider outsourcing certain services to the other if they were awarded the contract.
One of the state's goals had been to find a new foster agency with local ties, because the Sarasota-based YMCA was seen as being too far away to provide enough community support.
"Both agencies were extremely impressive, which made this decision a win-win for the children and families of the community," said Nick Cox, DCF's regional director in Tampa.
Eckerd Youth offers counseling, wilderness camps and residential programs to troubled youth. Currently, about 10,000 are enrolled in 40 programs in nine states.
If its board approves the contract, the agency would take over for the Sarasota YMCA on July 1.
Taking on foster care services for Pinellas and Pasco will mean operating adoption services, diversion programs and helping foster children transition into independent living.
Eckerd Youth also vowed to improve health screening for incoming clients, communications between case managers and the courts, and screening and training for foster parents.
The agency will be the third nonprofit to oversee foster care in Pinellas and Pasco since the state began privatizing the child welfare system in 1997.
In 2004, state officials asked the Sarasota YMCA to step in and take over Pinellas and Pasco foster care after Family Continuity, a private agency, pulled out amid financial problems.
But in 2006, the YMCA's performance in all its counties was among the state's worst, even though its per-child funding was one of the highest.
Department of Children and Families Secretary Bob Butterworth requested a state review of the YMCA last year after the disappearance of a Pinellas County foster girl and after an 18-month-old Manatee County girl suffocated under a stove.
Courtney Clark disappeared for nine months with her birth mother. The 2-year-old was found in Wisconsin. Reviews revealed numerous errors by DCF, the YMCA and law enforcement
In November, Butterworth announced that DCF would not renew the YMCA's contract in Pinellas and Pasco. He said the decision was mutual.
At the same time, Butterworth said the YMCA's $22-million contract in De Soto, Manatee and Sarasota counties was being extended until 2009.
Today, Butterworth will announce the appointment of former state legislator and high school football coach Bob Henriques to become district administrator for Pinellas and Pasco.
Information from Times files was used in this report. Nicole Hutcheson can be reached at email@example.com or (727)893-8828.