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Florida foster care agencies paid millions by the state also received taxpayer bailout

Two foster care agencies successfully applied for more than $1 million in Paycheck Protection Program funds, saying the money will protect services from expected budget cuts.

TAMPA — Two nonprofits that are paid millions of dollars to run foster care in Florida also received more than $1 million in taxpayer-backed coronavirus aid from the federal government, records show.

Embrace Families Community Based Care, which is paid about $74 million a year to run foster care in Orange, Osceola and Seminole counties, was awarded just over $1 million in Paycheck Protection Program funds.

Big Bend Community Based Care, which has a contract worth about $38.6 million a year to run foster care in 12 counties in the Panhandle, received $1.5 million from the federal bailout.

Both agencies said the bailout money will enable them to keep paying staff and maintain services in the event the state cuts foster care funding. The Florida Department of Children and Families has not announced cuts, but like other state agencies, it has been asked by Gov. Ron DeSantis to trim 6 percent of its budget this fiscal year.

Florida’s budget is based on revenue forecasts made by state economists months ago, before the coronavirus pandemic took effect. New estimates expected to show a steep decline in sales tax revenue are not scheduled to come out until August.

Officials from Embrace Families and Big Bend also said the bailout money is needed to cover the cost of personal protective equipment, overtime and other unexpected expenses arising from the pandemic. And they plan to help smaller nonprofits they subcontract with to provide therapy and other services to children and parents.

Citrus Health Network, the parent organization of foster care agency Citrus Family Care Network, was awarded between $2 million and $5 million in payroll protection funds, federal records show. Its subsidiary organization runs foster care in Miami-Dade and Monroe counties and was not involved in the application, said its director, Esther Jacobo. The award will be used to run its federally qualified health center and a community mental health center.

Eckerd Connects, which runs foster care across the Tampa Bay region, said its organization did not meet the criteria to apply for the small business payout.

The bailout program, part of the federal stimulus package, is being administered by the Small Business Administration and is limited to companies that employ 500 or fewer workers. Organizations can apply for up to $10 million, based on the size of their payroll. Interest is charged at 1 percent, and the loan can be forgiven if most of the money is used for payroll.

Related: Catholic Church lobbied for PPP taxpayer funds, got $1.4 billion

The allocations from the program have raised some eyebrows, with the Catholic Church among the recipients. Locally, successful applicants included Lowry Park Zoo, the David A. Straz Jr. Center for the Performing Arts and the Original Hooters in Clearwater.

The Tampa Bay Times and its related companies received $8.5 million through the program.

Related: These Tampa Bay companies got hundreds of millions in small business PPP loans

The pandemic has cost Embrace Families an additional $500,000 in protective equipment, support payments to foster and adoptive parents, staff overtime and other expenses, said Joseph Durso, the group’s vice president for public affairs.

More concerning, he said, is that smaller nonprofits that Embrace Families relies on to provide services to foster children are struggling to stay afloat during the pandemic. That includes Kids House of Seminole, which runs programs and builds awareness for children who have suffered from abuse.

“We don’t have the luxury of them going away because their funding is not there,” Durso said.

According to its application, the bailout money will enable Embrace Families to retain 120 jobs. Durso said those include staff members who license and train foster parents, among other positions.

He warned that the cost of the pandemic is still rising as Florida’s increasing number of positive cases is putting more potential foster homes under quarantine.

In addition to foster care, Big Bend also provides behavioral and health services for a region between Escambia through Madison and Taylor counties. The agency has been put on notice that the Florida Department of Children and Families is planning to hold back a percentage of its funding, according to spokesman Steve Vancore.

Part of the bailout money will go toward staffers who handle the arrival of new foster children, support for foster families and case managers.

“We need to ensure that there will be no gap in the vital behavioral, mental health services and child welfare services we provide,” he said.

Eckerd Connects estimates that it has spent at least $84,000 on protective equipment for staff, supplies so they can work from home and on additional cleaning and misting of offices.

Chris Card, Eckerd Connects chief of community based care.

Costs are likely to rise further as the number of cases in Florida increases. Eckerd Connects has been forced to hire additional staffers to supervise children and try to find facilities that can accommodate kids and families that are either exposed to or have tested positive for the coronavirus, said Chris Card, chief of community-based care.

It makes sense for smaller foster care agencies to apply for bailout money in the event of funding cuts or other contingencies, he said, adding that the loans are low interest and can be repaid if the need does not arise.

“If the money dries up, the kids don’t go away,” Card said. “There is an obligation to be prepared in case something happens. We can’t just say we’re closed.”