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Eckerd Connects to lay off 176 as Hillsborough foster care winds down

The layoffs are effective June 30. Foster care workers could be offered jobs with the agency taking over Hillsborough’s foster care system.
The Eckerd Connects Community Alternative building on Florida Avenue in Tampa will close in March with the loss of 176 jobs, according to a notice the nonprofit has sent to the state. Many of those laid off will be offered jobs by Eckerd Connects' replacement, Children's Network of Southwest Florida.
The Eckerd Connects Community Alternative building on Florida Avenue in Tampa will close in March with the loss of 176 jobs, according to a notice the nonprofit has sent to the state. Many of those laid off will be offered jobs by Eckerd Connects' replacement, Children's Network of Southwest Florida. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]
Published Apr. 18|Updated Apr. 18

TAMPA — The fallout from Eckerd Connects’ exit from Tampa Bay’s two major foster care contracts continues as the Clearwater nonprofit told the state it will layoff 176 employees from its Hillsborough County operation.

The agency plans to close its main Hillsborough foster care operations office on N Florida Avenue and let go of most of its foster care workers effective June 30, according to a notification sent to the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity last week. That’s when Eckerd Connects’ $87 million contract with the state to run the county’s foster care system expires.

The move comes six months after the nonprofit axed more than 200 foster care jobs in Pinellas and Pasco counties after the Florida Department of Children and Families Secretary Shevaun Harris announced last year she would not extend its $80 million service contract. Harris made the decision after learning Pinellas Sheriff Bob Gualtieri had launched a criminal investigation into foster children sleeping in “deplorable conditions” in an unlicensed Eckerd Connects office on Ulmerton Road.

The Hillsborough jobs that will be cut include 25 case managers, 9 family support workers and 12 child care workers. Two executive directors positions will also be lost.

Related: Fort Myers nonprofit to run Hillsborough child welfare services

There may be hope for those losing their jobs in Hillsborough: They could be getting a job offer from the county’s new foster care provider, Children’s Network of Southwest Florida, the Fort Meyers agency that will take over from Eckerd Connects in Hillsborough on July 1.

Children’s Network CEO Nadereh Salim said a majority of Eckerd’s Hillsborough foster care workers — including case managers, their supervisors and other front-line support staff — will be offered jobs.

“There are many dedicated, professional and competent staff who have given their talent and time to serving the children and families in Hillsborough community, and we are equally committed to keeping as many of them as is possible,” Salim said in an email to the Tampa Bay Times.

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

Cherry-picking workers from outgoing agencies is a standard practice in foster care. Case managers and supervisors are already familiar with existing foster care children, their cases, and how well their parents are working to get their children back. Eckerd Connects said it cannot comment on the Children’s Network of Southwest Florida’s plans.

“In Eckerd Connects’ prior experience when other state contracts have been transitioned to a new provider, more than 90 percent of staff have been onboarded by the new provider,” the agency said in a statement to the Times. “There have been no decisions made on severance packages for employees at this time.”

Related: Hillsborough foster care agency hires former interim DCF secretary

Less sure is the future of those who are in leadership positions at Eckerd Connects. Salim said those will be considered on a case-by-case basis and will depend on whether their position fits into the new organization she is planning.

Eckerd Connects’ foster care operations on both sides of Tampa Bay were headed by Rebecca Kapusta, vice president for community based care. A former interim secretary of the Department of Children and Families, Kapusta was hired by Eckerd Connects in 2019. Her salary at the time was $135,000. She resigned last week, according to Eckerd Connects.

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Eckerd Connects took over foster care in Pinellas and Pasco (as a combined district) in 2008 and Hillsborough services in 2014. The Hillsborough contract was worth about $87 million per year.

After losing the Pinellas-Pasco contract last year, the nonprofit announced that it would not seek to renew its Hillsborough contract.

In November, the state announced that Jacksonville nonprofit Family Support Services of North Florida would take over foster care in Pinellas and Pasco.

Family Support Services CEO Jenn Petion said her agency was able to hire 220 Eckerd Connects workers for jobs in those counties. Those hired were able to get employer benefits such as health insurance without having to go through a waiting period and also had their seniority transferred over, she said.

”We recognized staff had been through a lot and they were concerned about losing everything,” she said.

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