Fort Myers nonprofit to run Hillsborough child welfare services

Florida officials once again hand control of one of Tampa Bay’s foster care districts to an agency from outside the region.
The Florida Department of Children and Families announced Monday it intends to award the contract to run Hillsborough County's child welfare system to a Fort Myers nonprofit. That contract this year is worth about $87 million.
The Florida Department of Children and Families announced Monday it intends to award the contract to run Hillsborough County's child welfare system to a Fort Myers nonprofit. That contract this year is worth about $87 million. [ Children's Network of Southwest Florida ]
Published March 14, 2022|Updated March 15, 2022

TAMPA — The Florida Department of Children and Families intends to award the contract to run foster care in Hillsborough County to a Fort Myers nonprofit.

State officials on Monday posted an intent to award notice online naming The Children’s Network of Southwest Florida as the bid winner.

The nonprofit, which runs the child welfare system in a five-county region centered around Fort Myers and Naples, did not submit a bid for the Hillsborough contract. Instead, state officials contacted the nonprofit and asked it to take part in negotiations, which state law allows.

The Hillsborough contract was worth about $87 million this year, but that amount is likely to go up as state lawmakers have indicated they’ll boost child welfare funding for most lead agencies.

Related: 154 kids, 1 case manager: Hillsborough’s foster care staff crisis.

The state’s decision can still be appealed by WestCare, a Las Vegas behavioral health and social services agency that was the only bidder to replace Eckerd Connects. State law gives it 72 hours to file an appeal. DCF spokesperson Laura Walthall said she cannot comment on an active procurement process.

It’s the second time in five months that the state has given contracts to run foster care in the Tampa Bay region to an agency from another part of the state.

In November, the $80 million contract to run child welfare in Pinellas and Pasco counties was given to Family Support Services of North Florida, a foster care agency based in Jacksonville. It took over from Eckerd Connects on Jan. 1 after the state announced it would not renew the Clearwater nonprofit’s contract.

That decision came as Pinellas Sheriff Bob Gualiteri told state officials he was preparing to launch a criminal investigation into Eckerd Connects, saying the agency housed children in an unlicensed office on Ulmerton Road amid “disgusting and deplorable” conditions.

Eckerd Connects responded by announcing it would not seek renewal of its Hillsborough foster care contract, which expires June 30.

Related: Fort Myers group didn’t bid, but could win Hillsborough foster care contract

Children’s Network is a subsidiary of Camelot, a nonprofit also headquartered in Clearwater. It operates separately with its own leadership, board of directors and bank accounts, according to CEO Nadereh Salim. It has run foster care in Charlotte, Glades, Lee, Hendry and Collier counties since the system in that judicial circuit was privatized 19 years ago. By contrast, the Pinellas-Pasco circuit has had four different providers over roughly the same period.

Salim said Children’s Network will put together a transition team to work with stakeholders in Hillsborough’s child welfare system as it takes over services. That will include reviewing the system, taking an inventory of existing contracts with providers and reviewing salaries and benefits offered to those working in foster care.

“Our intention is not to reinvent the wheel,” Salim said, “but to look for opportunities where we can make improvements and changes.”

Among the challenges facing the agency are a high number of foster teens, some with severe behavioral issues, whom Eckerd Connects struggled to find long-term foster homes for. Hillsborough’s foster system has also struggled with high caseloads in recent months due to a shortage of case managers.

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Children's Network of Southwest Florida CEO Nadereh Salim.
Children's Network of Southwest Florida CEO Nadereh Salim. [ Children's Network of Southwest Florida ]

Salim said finding and retaining qualified employees will be among her top priorities once her agency takes over on July 1. She plans to work with Hillsborough’s Community Alliance, a state-mandated body of child welfare stakeholders that includes representatives from county government, the School Board, the Sheriff’s Office, dependency courts and the Children’s Board of Hillsborough County.

“We’re looking forward to coming to the community and engaging the community and everyone who has been working so hard there to care for children and families,” she said.

Roy Miller, president of Tallahassee nonprofit American Children’s Campaign, said Children’s Network has a history of stable leadership and its state scorecard shows it does a good job of getting children out of the foster care system. Almost 43 percent of children taken into foster care under Children’s Network in the Fort Myers and Naples region are either reunited with parents or adopted within one year. That’s roughly 10 percent more than in Hillsborough under Eckerd Connects, state data shows.

But Miller is concerned by another case of the state awarding existing agencies a second contract in communities with which they have no geographical link. That runs counter to Florida’s privatized child welfare model — known as community-based care, or CBC — which was designed to place control in the hands of local agencies who best know their community’s needs.

“We remain concerned that this contract award continues and even encourages the pattern of existing community-based care agencies morphing in size and geography into mega-CBC conglomerates,” Miller said.

Related: Jacksonville-based agency appointed to run foster care in Pinellas, Pasco

Kurt Kelly, chief executive officer and president of the Florida Coalition for Children, a group that lobbies for foster-care agencies, said Hillsborough is getting an accomplished leader who is well-regarded by state lawmakers from Southwest Florida. He expects Salim will work closely with existing community leaders in Tampa Bay.

“She’ll be able to capture the intent of that community and get them deeply involved,” he said.