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Pinellas Sheriff launches criminal investigation into Eckerd Connects

Eckerd Connects housed foster kids in “deplorable conditions,” said Sheriff Bob Gualtieri. One child was injured and another overdosed,
Pinellas Sheriff Bob Gualtieri announced Thursday that his office will launch a criminal investigation into Eckerd Connects, the agency that runs foster care in Pinellas and Pasco counties. Recent accidents and incidents raised alarms about the level of care and supervision at the makeshift accommodation, the sheriff said. It comes just four days after the Florida Department of Children and Families announced that it will not renew the Clearwater nonprofit's $80 million contract to provide child welfare services in the two counties.
Pinellas Sheriff Bob Gualtieri announced Thursday that his office will launch a criminal investigation into Eckerd Connects, the agency that runs foster care in Pinellas and Pasco counties. Recent accidents and incidents raised alarms about the level of care and supervision at the makeshift accommodation, the sheriff said. It comes just four days after the Florida Department of Children and Families announced that it will not renew the Clearwater nonprofit's $80 million contract to provide child welfare services in the two counties. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]
Published Nov. 4, 2021|Updated Nov. 5, 2021

LARGO — Eckerd Connects was paid $80 million by the state this year to provide safe and loving foster homes for Pinellas and Pasco County children taken from their parents because they had been abused or neglected.

But Pinellas Sheriff Bob Gualtieri said they were no safer in the care of Eckerd Connects.

Some children in its care ended up sleeping in unlicensed offices in what Gualtieri described as “disgusting and deplorable” conditions. Recent accidents and incidents raised alarms about the level of care and supervision at the makeshift accommodation, he said.

One child was hospitalized last week after falling off a ladder and cutting open his stomach while trying to climb onto the roof, according to the sheriff. He said one child ended up in the hospital after overdosing on another child’s medication.

In another case, a worker of an unlicensed care facility was driving a 14-year-old child when a gun fell onto the floorboard. And dozens more kids were being cycled through several unlicensed care facilities, including one whose director at the time was being investigated for conspiring to distribute hydrocodone.

The sheriff said children were sleeping on cots and under desks. Some slept in dirty clothes, without toiletries, towels or access to hot meals.

“The conditions are as bad or worse than the living conditions from which the children were removed,” Gualtieri said.

Related: Eckerd Connects loses child welfare contract in Pinellas, Pasco

His office will launch two separate investigations into the Clearwater nonprofit that has run foster care in Pinellas and Pasco since 2008.

One will be a child protection investigation into the children under Eckerd’s care, conducted using the sheriff’s authority to investigate allegations of child abuse and neglect in the county.

Gualtieri also ordered a criminal investigation into the nonprofit and its high-level employees. He said he doesn’t intend to charge lower-level staffers such as case managers, who he said are “between a rock and a hard place.”

“It’s not fair to hold these low-level people who are making a few bucks an hour (accountable) who are trying to do the best they can,” he said. “I have no interest in charging them.”

The investigations were made public after the Florida Department of Children and Families said Monday it will not renew Eckerd Connects’ $80 million annual contract to provide child welfare services for the two counties.

The entrance of Eckerd Connects in Largo. Pinellas Sheriff Bob Gualtieri announced Thursday that his office is launching a criminal investigation into Eckerd Connects, which runs foster care in Pinellas and Pasco counties.
The entrance of Eckerd Connects in Largo. Pinellas Sheriff Bob Gualtieri announced Thursday that his office is launching a criminal investigation into Eckerd Connects, which runs foster care in Pinellas and Pasco counties. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]

Gualtieri said he told department Secretary Shevaun Harris last week about the ladder accident and the conditions children were sleeping in but did not share his intention to launch a criminal investigation until Tuesday.

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The sheriff announced the investigations at a Thursday news conference. Afterward, Eckerd released a statement that did not address the specific allegations made by Gualtieri. The nonprofit is still caring for children under its current contract.

“Eckerd Connects takes extremely seriously the criminal investigation announced today by the Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office,” said the statement from Eckerd Connects board chairman Ray Ferrara. “Eckerd will provide its full cooperation to the Sheriff’s Office in its investigation. Eckerd Connects’ mission is to support the health and wellbeing of children and families in need in the Tampa Bay area, and we will not tolerate any acts of neglect or abuse by any of our staff or subcontracted agencies.”

Eckerd Connects has previously blamed its care issues on a lack of adequate state funding. Gualtieri said Thursday that’s no excuse for leaving children in those conditions. ”We all got money problems,” he said, “but we make it happen.”

The Pasco County Sheriff’s Office has not received complaints about Eckerd’s services in that county, spokesperson Amanda Hunter said. She added anyone can report a complaint to the agency, which sheriff’s investigators will look into. The Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office has no plans to investigate Eckerd Connects, spokesperson Merissa Lynn said.

Gualtieri said an average of six children slept each night at the Ulmerton Road office. Roughly another 60 children in the two-county circuit were on so-called night-to-night placements — meaning they did not have a long-term foster placement.

The sheriff said the Department of Children and Families sent staffers to help ensure the children in Eckerd’s care are safe. He did not give a timetable for how long the investigation will take.

Largo police officers made a report to the state child abuse hotline and the Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office after the child was injured falling from the ladder, Gualtieri said. Emails sent between Largo employees last week revealed that the city’s code enforcement officers were preparing to cite Eckerd Connects for using a commercially zoned building as a residence for foster children.

Largo employees reported that children at the Ulmerton Road facility had been staying at the office for more than a month, some sleeping on cots in conference rooms and on top of a cubicle. TVs were still on at 3 a.m. “with kids running amok while others try to sleep,” an email states.

Related: Child welfare agency under fire unveils plan to fix Hillsborough's foster care woes

DCF was aware that foster children in Pinellas were sleeping in unlicensed facilities. In May, the agency put Eckerd Connects under a corrective action plan to address the issue. Its Hillsborough County foster care operation faced the same sanction in 2018.

In a memo the state sent Monday to Eckerd Connects declaring that its contract will not be renewed, the Department of Children and Families secretary said that the nonprofit has a history of placing children in unlicensed settings and had “jeopardized the health, safety and welfare of dependent children under your care.”

Eckerd Connects’ contract to run foster care in Pinellas and Pasco expires Dec. 31. It also announced Monday that it will not seek an extension of its $87 million contract to provide child welfare services in Hillsborough County when that expires in June 2022.

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