The Florida Department of Children and Families put child welfare in Hillsborough County in uncharted territory last week by replacing its home-grown child protection agency with Clearwater-based Eckerd Youth Alternatives. Communities are best served by local providers, but the deaths of eight children who were under the supervision of Hillsborough Kids Inc. raised enough questions to warrant a drastic change. Eckerd needs to reach out to Tampa-area leaders to build a strong presence. The state should examine whether more central control would bring much-needed accountability to the child safety net.
DCF Secretary David Wilkins said the deaths "definitely played a part" in handing HKI's $65.5 million annual contract for child protection services to Eckerd, though he was careful not to blame the agency directly or to overlook the good work HKI has done in the 10 years since the Legislature voted to outsource services. But no other agency in Florida has had as many deaths in the past two years, and HKI had been under scrutiny for months. A local advisory group made up of children's advocates and state officials unanimously recommended a change. The decision was hardly a rush job. HKI should work to make the transition seamless as Eckerd prepares to take over July 1.
With HKI's future decided, the focus can now shift from saving an agency to better protecting the 2,500 Hillsborough children under the state's supervision. Eckerd said it will spend the next few months assessing the safety measures in place for children at risk of abuse and neglect. It also will meet with family members and service providers to allay any concerns about interruptions in care. This is an opportunity for Eckerd to introduce itself and to start on sound footing. How well it communicates during the transition will go a long way toward fostering public support for its operation in the Tampa area.
Eckerd and the state also need to recognize that Hillsborough has unique problems when it comes to delivering child safety services. Too many providers — the state attorney general, the county sheriff, a multitude of contractors — have a hand in the pot. The complex system makes for poor accountability and ample opportunity for children to fall through the cracks. The state needs to consider whether a consolidated framework would make the delivery of services more responsive and efficient.
The entire community has a stake in Eckerd succeeding, and if anything, the change should put a spotlight on the need for much more rigorous oversight — both locally and at the state level — of service providers.