There were nearly 300 foster children living outside the area when Eckerd Community Alternatives took over foster care in Pasco and Pinellas counties.
That made it difficult for caseworkers to keep an eye on their young charges and for families to visit.
Four months later, the number has shrunk to 225, and the agency's goal is to relocate all children younger than 8 to local homes.
That's one of many changes that have taken place since the Clearwater organization began managing the system of more than 3,000 children in July.
Eckerd was selected for the job after the state Department of Children and Families dropped its contract with Sarasota YMCA in early 2008 after scathing reports of mismanagement.
Eckerd, the fourth agency to take on the task in the last eight years, has won praise for its early accomplishments. But there also have been questions about whether the agency will be able to navigate the often brutal, uncertain world of foster care in the long term, given its inexperience.
Get better, get bigger
Drugstore magnate Jack Eckerd and his wife, Ruth, founded Eckerd Youth Alternatives in 1968.
The Clearwater-based organization, which now goes by Eckerd Community Alternatives, now serves about 14,000 youths a year through more than 40 programs nationwide. The agency primarily runs therapeutic camps for children who display mild to severe behavior problems.
The decision to expand into foster care this year was as much about business as it was about helping the community.
When David Dennis became the agency's chief executive in April 2007, among his priorities was expanding Eckerd's brand and improving the bottom line.
"We had a situation where corporate overhead had risen to over 17 percent and we were using money from our endowment — that money was not related directly to caring for children," Dennis said.
To get better, Eckerd needed to get bigger, he said.
"A lot of people have in their mind that Mr. Eckerd wanted to open a bunch of camps," Dennis said. "But Mr. Eckerd was an innovator, he was always looking for a better way."
It was Dennis' decision to seek the $49-million state foster care contract, which the agency won in April. The agency officially took over on July 1.
"It was a bit of a whirlwind," said Marcie Biddleman, the agency's executive director. "We had to work had to get everything in place, from how Eckerd would ready itself for the contract, to whom we'd hire in key positions to how we'd approach care."
It's only been four months, but so far, DCF officials are impressed.
"They've set high standards for themselves, and so far they've met them," said Nick Cox, the department's Suncoast regional director.
Already, Eckerd has been able to reduce loads for caseworkers from 25-to-1 to 20-to-1. The agency also has facilitated 57 adoptions.
The Sarasota YMCA had been last in the state for meeting a requirement that each foster child have a birth certificate, fingerprints and a picture in the system. Eckerd has since moved out of the bottom.
Officials attribute the improvements to better communication.
Every Monday, Biddleman holds a conference call with various community stakeholders, such as the Pinellas Sheriff's Office and the State Attorney's Office.
The group talks about everything from how many adoptions were made the previous week to how many foster beds are available. That lack of coordination was one of the complaints against the Sarasota Y.
"People are driven to do better when they can see their progress in front of them," Biddleman said.
Eckerd also is making progress in getting children out of the system within the state-required 12 months, either through family reunification or adoption.
When Eckerd took over in July, there were 1,183 children who had been in the system for more than a year. So far, the agency has reduced that number by 152.
Other agency priorities:
• Streamlining the licensing process for potential foster families to ensure more beds. It now takes six months; the goal is four.
• Increasing prevention efforts. Eckerd hopes to target families in crisis earlier and offer training and counseling so the children won't have to go into the system.
Not an easy change
Eckerd's transition hasn't been all smooth sailing.
Taking on the contract has meant a cultural shift from a more localized personal approach to a geographically larger, more data-focused initiative. Some questioned Eckerd's readiness.
"I've had some concerns because of the lack of child welfare experience," said Andrea Moore, executive director of Florida's Children First. "But I think they've earned the community's support as they manage the challenges of taking over a daunting system."
The agency also was criticized over its cost-cutting strategies.
Dennis reorganized the agency and laid off 20 people in management positions.
"It's a tough world, and on a broader level nobody's escaping the tightening of the belt in these times," Dennis said. "Even if there weren't those financial straits, our organization had to take a hard look at itself and say, 'Is this the right thing for kids?' "
Eckerd officials agree that there are some things for which they can't fully prepare.
When news broke this month about a Hillsborough foster child who was raped, Eckerd officials paid close attention.
They also talked with the DCF about how to handle such crises.
"There are going to be situations in which they're going to be judged harshly, and the best way for them to deal with that is to be accountable, up front and transparent," said Bob Henriques, a circuit administrator for the DCF. "And wherever they can, to try to make sure those situations don't arise, but I don't know of any lead agency that is going to have a perfect record."
Nicole Hutcheson can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8828.