TAMPA — The agency that runs foster care across the Tampa Bay region has hired the former interim leader of the Florida Department of Children and Families to help fix its troubled child welfare operation in Hillsborough County.
Rebecca Kapusta started her new job as Eckerd Connects' vice president of community based care on Monday. She will be paid $135,000 annually.
Her appointment is the second time in the past year that a senior official of the state agency has resigned to accept a high-paying job with a nonprofit group that has a contract with the agency. Long-time department Secretary Mike Carroll resigned in August and was hired by Lutheran Services Florida as executive vice president of programs. His salary is $225,000.
A law is supposed to prevent state employees involved in awarding contracts from being hired by the firms that won those contracts. Government watchdog groups are now questioning whether that law is working.
"The intent was to keep people from profiting on their public service," said Integrity Florida research director Ben Wilcox, whose organization is a non-partisan, non-profit government watchdog. "To the public, I think there will be an appearance that her knowledge of how DCF 'works' when it comes to contracts was a factor in her getting the job."
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TAMPA BAY TIMES COVERAGE: Hillsborough's foster care system
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The decision by former Gov. Jeb Bush more than a decade ago to privatize child welfare and some mental health services created a raft of opportunities for social services agencies. The state contracts with 17 different "lead" agencies to manage and run foster placement and case management in 20 districts, known as circuits across the state. Several of those agencies are run by former officials from the Department of Children and Families.
That includes Linda McKinnon, a former regional Mental Health and Substance Abuse Administrator, who left the state agency in 2003 to lead the Central Florida Behavioral Health Network. That nonprofit runs foster care in 14 Florida west coast counties. Mike Watkins, a former agency district administrator, is now CEO of Big Bend Community Based Care, which is contracted to run foster care in the Panhandle area.
Both Carroll and Kapusta sought an opinion from the Florida Commission on Ethics on whether they would be violating state law by accepting their new positions. The commission opined in both cases that it was legal for them to do so. In the case of Kapusta, the opinion states that she did not have direct authority over the awarding of contracts at the time Eckerd Connects won bids to run foster care in Pinellas, Pasco and later Hillsborough counties.
"I sought an opinion and clearance through the Commission on ethics in order to maintain my own integrity and not impact Eckerd and the Department in a negative manner," Kapusta said in an email to the Tampa Bay Times.
As well as interim secretary, Kapusta also served as the Department of Children and Families' general counsel and assistant secretary for operations.
She will need all that experience. Hillsborough is the state's fourth-largest county by population yet leads the state in child removals. It is struggling to find beds for all those children. Last year the Times reported that some children in Eckerd's care ended up sleeping in its offices.
In February, that led the state to order a review of the county's foster care system by a panel of experts. The nonprofit received at least two warnings that it could lose its Hillsborough contract, which is worth $80 million a year.
Kapusta's deep knowledge of the local child welfare system and its leaders will help Eckerd Connects, said Chris Card, the nonprofit's chief of community-based care. He said she brings years of experience as a child welfare attorney helping children and families and through working with other social services agencies. She's also local. Though she worked in Tallahassee, Card said Kapusta continued to live in Tampa.
"Hillsborough County is the largest child welfare system in the state of Florida," Card said. "We need the very best and we are very fortunate to have Ms. Kapusta take this position of leadership."
Card has long complained that Eckerd Connects does not receive adequate funding to run foster care. Connie Going, a national adoption expert and CEO of the Adoption Advocacy Center, said the non-profit should look at the number of executives that it employs, such as Kapusta.
"They cry for money so they can improve their outcomes yet they hire Chris Card, create more managerial top heavy positions, and now Rebecca (Kapusta)," she said. "Families are struggling. Outcomes are not changing."
Card disputed that. He said Eckerd's administrative overhead is only about 4 percent, well below average for non-profits
"When you don't have significant management," he said, "things can fall off the table."
Contact Christopher O'Donnell at email@example.com or (813) 226-3446. Follow @codonnell_times.