TAMPA — Can anyone guarantee Hillsborough County's thousands of children under state protection won't be hurt or killed or neglected or abused?
On Friday the state replaced the home-grown, nonprofit agency that has tried for the past decade. It turned over a $65.5 million annual contract for child protection services to another agency. The takeover starts July 1.
At least eight deaths of Hillsborough children under state protection in the past two years preceded the ouster of Hillsborough Kids Inc., which was created in 2001 after the Legislature voted to outsource services. The agency now protects 2,500 children. CEO Jeff Rainey had already tendered his resignation.
Eckerd Youth Alternatives was awarded a $65.5 million annual contract through 2017. Eckerd, headquartered in Clearwater, already provides those services in Pinellas and Pasco counties.
In an interview after the announcement, David Wilkins, secretary of the Department of Children and Families, said the deaths "definitely played a part in the decision process," but he added that not every case related to bad practices.
"It's not like Hillsborough Kids was responsible for eight deaths."
Ultimately, Wilkins said, Eckerd had a better presentation. "It wasn't that Hillsborough Kids lost the contract," he said. "It was that Eckerd won it."
But HKI has been under scrutiny because of its safety record. The DCF said no other agency in Florida had as many deaths.
Last Monday, a Hillsborough advisory committee made up of children's advocates and DCF officials unanimously recommended the change.
A series of performance reviews found inadequate monitoring by frontline workers and insufficient backup by supervisors. Hillsborough Kids boosted its training, but the advisory committee concluded this week that the changes came too late and Eckerd has a better performance record.
HKI chairwoman Mindy Murphy offered a staunch defense Friday:
"We have led the state in a number of innovative practices: Family Finding has created over 2,000 family connections to hundreds of children in Hillsborough County and our Diversion Services have kept close to 10,000 children safely with their families.
"Each decision we make over the next six months will be guided by our experience, expertise, our local knowledge and our concern for this community where we live and work."
Eckerd spokeswoman April Putzulu listed three goals for the transition: to assess and improve safety; to ensure no disruption of services; and to communicate every move with parents and service providers. She said Eckerd will be organizing community forums and focus groups.
Many of the obstacles to protecting Hillsborough children are viewed as systemic.
Eckerd will face the same challenge of overseeing a plethora of subcontractor agencies in Hillsborough. DCF says the county has one of the most complex child-protection networks in the country. It includes the state Attorney General's Office, the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office and six other agencies providing frontline workers.
Poor communication among those agencies has been cited in recent tragedies. One casualty was Ezekiel Mathis, a 1-year-old killed last May. The Attorney General's Office said it made a mistake in not removing Ezekiel from his home earlier. Three subcontractor field workers apparently were unaware that a boyfriend living in the home had been barred by a judge. Their e-mail inquiry to deputies wasn't opened until after the baby's death. The boyfriend is charged with his murder.
Wilkins said other protective agencies in the state have multiple components, but they make them work. He isn't recommending changes.
Robin Rosenberg, deputy director of Florida's Children First Inc., urged one change.
"This decision should be a wake-up call for the child welfare community that there needs to be improvement in the governance and oversight," she said.
"The system relies on community volunteers to serve on boards and community alliances but doesn't give them the training necessary to do their job with maximum efficacy."
Rosenberg said boards and community alliances need the tools to understand all aspects of child welfare and to demand improvements during the course of the contract.
"It's far better for everyone if existing lead agencies can be helped to do better, rather than to wait for the end of a contract to make a change."
John Barry can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3383.