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Eckerd Connects loses child welfare contract in Pinellas, Pasco

The Clearwater nonprofit says it also will walk away from its $87 million Hillsborough contract in 2022.
The entrance of an Eckerd Connects office complex on Ulmerton Road in Largo. The state will not renew its contract to provide child welfare and foster care services in Pinellas and Pasco counties next year. The Clearwater nonprofit says it will also walk away from its Hillsborough contract in 2022.
The entrance of an Eckerd Connects office complex on Ulmerton Road in Largo. The state will not renew its contract to provide child welfare and foster care services in Pinellas and Pasco counties next year. The Clearwater nonprofit says it will also walk away from its Hillsborough contract in 2022. [ BRONTE WITTPENN | TIMES ]
Published Nov. 1
Updated Nov. 4

CLEARWATER — Eckerd Connects will no longer provide foster care and child services in the Tampa Bay region next year.

Florida Department of Children and Families Secretary Shevaun Harris decided not to renew the state’s contract with the Clearwater nonprofit to provide child services in Pinellas and Pasco counties when it expires at the end of the year. That contract was worth $80 million in 2021.

In response, Eckerd Connects officials said Monday they had already decided not to bid for the new contract. The nonprofit also announced that it will not seek an extension of its $87 million contract to provide child welfare services in Hillsborough County through June 2022.

In a memo sent Monday to Rebecca Kapusta, Eckerd Connects’ director of community based care, Harris said it had a history of placing children in unlicensed settings and had “jeopardized the health safety and welfare of dependent children under your care.”

The secretary’s decision was backed by Florida Senate President Wilton Simpson, who said they’ve long been frustrated by the performance of Eckerd Connects. The nonprofit has faced criticism for a handful of high profile deaths of children under its watch and struggled to find long-term placements for teenagers in care. In some cases, children ended up sleeping on air mattresses in offices.

Simpson said the agency’s performance did not measure up when compared to other lead foster agencies across the state.

“As we look at the metrics, they’re at the bottom,” he said. “Maybe for the first time in a long time, we’ll have different leadership that will do a better job.”

Related: Eckerd Connects in Clearwater exceeded Florida cap on salaries, says IG report

Eckerd Connects released a statement Monday saying its board of directors had already decided Oct. 26 to discontinue providing child welfare and foster foster care services in Pinellas and Pasco counties — which are administered as a single child welfare district — and in Hillsborough County.

Its statement said that both contracts are “woefully underfunded,” making it almost impossible to provide adequate services. The group’s board had instructed CEO David Dennis to produce a letter informing the state of its decision but had not yet sent it, according to Ray Ferrara, chariman and CEO of ProVise Management, who has served on Eckerd Connects’ board for 13 years.

“They terminated us before we said we didn’t want it,” he said.

Ferrara said the nonprofit’s decision was not made in response to the state’s decision to end the contract. The nonprofit has long complained that state funding did not increase even as the number of children in care rose. Eckerd Connects says it ended up with Florida’s two largest child welfare districts but received millions less than some other parts of the state.

“We want to have the money follow the child so each child would be treated equitably throughout the state,” Ferrara said. “We made some progress, but it wasn’t enough, and it wasn’t fast enough.”

Related: Pinellas now ranks No. 2 in Florida for children in foster care

Ferrara said he hopes that Eckerd Connects’ child welfare employees will be hired by whoever the state chooses to take over the contract. The nonprofit will do whatever the state asks to help with a smooth transition, he said.

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DCF’s decision comes as the nonprofit is being investigated by the state’s inspector general for overpaying its top executive. A report by the IG office contends that Eckerd Connects, whose chief of community-based care was led by Chris Card during the time of the review, exceeded the 2019 statutory compensation limit of $213,819 a year by $23,781.

That limit, which was set at 150 percent of the annual salary paid to the secretary of DCF, was put in place in 2017 by then-Gov. Rick Scott. Card retired in August and was replaced by Kapusta, who is a former interim secretary of DCF.

That investigation has not focused on the salary of the nonprofit’s CEO, David Dennis, who according to tax documents was paid $785,000 in 2020. Eckerd Connects officials have previously stated that that the group operates and collects revenue from operations in 20 states.

Related: Eckerd Connects in Clearwater exceeded Florida cap on salaries, says IG report

Eckerd Connects won the Hillsborough contract in 2012, four years after it was hired to run the Pinellas-Pasco district. In recent years, it struggled with high turnover of case managers among its subcontractors, which in 2019 led to it to fire Directions for Living, a local nonprofit that provided case management services.

It was criticized by the state for its handling of three cases in which children died while under the watch of the state.

In July 2017, the state said 8-month-old William Hendrickson IV died after being left with his father in a Largo mobile home where the temperature rose to 109 degrees. A state investigation concluded that his case manager, who visited the home a day before the boy’s death, failed to take necessary action.

In September 2018, Largo police said 2-year-old Jordan Belliveau was killed by his mother while under the supervision of a Directions case manager. A state investigation found that child welfare agencies missed warning signs, failed to make home visits and said nothing when his mother lied in court about completing mandatory counseling classes.

And on Aug. 12, 2019, Julian Carter, 11, died of an overdose after mental health professionals had on 20 occasions recommended him for long-term residential treatment that he never received.

Robin Rosenberg, deputy director of Florida’s Children First, said new leadership is needed on both sides of Tampa Bay.

“Bad things have been happening to children and families in both communities — it’s good that DCF is finally stepping up to do something,” she said. “l’m concerned about what comes next because we need strong leadership to come in and turn things around.”