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State launches emergency bid to find new foster care agency for Pinellas, Pasco

The Florida Department of Children and Families has just 35 working days to replace Eckerd Connects, which is the focus of a criminal investigation.
Pinellas Sheriff Bob Gualtieri announced Thursday, Nov. 4, 2021, that his office launched a criminal investigation into Eckerd Connects Community Alternatives, the agency that runs foster care in Pinellas and Pasco counties. Recent accidents and incidents reported from Eckerd’s offices shown here at 8550 Ulmerton Road in Largo, 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.
Pinellas Sheriff Bob Gualtieri announced Thursday, Nov. 4, 2021, that his office launched a criminal investigation into Eckerd Connects Community Alternatives, the agency that runs foster care in Pinellas and Pasco counties. Recent accidents and incidents reported from Eckerd’s offices shown here at 8550 Ulmerton Road in Largo, 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. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]
Published Nov. 6, 2021
Updated Nov. 7, 2021

With less than two months to find a new foster care agency for Pinellas and Pasco counties, the Florida Department of Children and Families late on Friday opened up bidding for the $80 million contract under emergency terms.

The department will accept bids from agencies for a five-year contract to serve as the lead child welfare agency in the two counties. The deadline to apply is Nov. 12. The contracts are typically awarded to nonprofit groups that work in the social services arena.

DCF has until the end of the year to find a new lead agency after Secretary Shevaun Harris told Eckerd Connects on Monday that its contract would not be renewed. Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri subsequently announced a criminal investigation into the Clearwater nonprofit after child welfare investigators found children in its care slept in unlicensed offices in “disgusting and deplorable” conditions.

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

Finding a new lead agency on such short notice will be extremely tough, said Kurt Kelley, CEO and president of the Florida Coalition for Children, a group that lobbies on behalf of lead foster agencies and others that work in child welfare.

Pinellas and Pasco are administered as a single child welfare district. Combined it has more than 2,600 children placed with foster parents, relatives or in group homes, the most of any district in Florida. But its $80 million funding in this fiscal year is only the third most in the state.

State officials have 35 working days until Eckerd Connects’ contract runs out. They would be better served finding an agency to take over on an interim basis while local agencies and government work with case management agencies, service providers, foster families and other stakeholders to come up with a long-term, community-based proposal, Kelley said.

“This is going to fall on its face if they don’t get the community deeply involved,” he said. “My greatest concern is the transition. How will you get someone to come in and hang onto all the providers and make sure there is continuity?”

Eckerd Connects was appointed as the lead agency in Pinellas and Pasco in 2008. The state cited the nonprofit’s history of placing children in unlicensed settings and said it had “jeopardized the health, safety and welfare of dependent children under your care” in a letter it sent Monday.

Gualtieri on Thursday announced a two-pronged investigation into Eckerd Connects. One will be a child protection investigation conducted using the sheriff’s authority to investigate allegations of child abuse and neglect. He also plans a criminal investigation into the nonprofit and its high-level employees.

Related: Pinellas Sheriff launches criminal investigation into Eckerd Connects

Florida’s privatized child welfare model is intended to put control of foster care operations in local hands. But increasingly, some bigger nonprofits have been awarded second contracts and run foster care across several counties.

Roy Miller, president of Tallahassee nonprofit American Children’s Campaign, said the state should not continue that trend and reward an existing agency with another lucrative contract. Instead, he would like to see it engage with children’s organizations, the local United Way Suncoast, county governments and other stakeholders to come up with a new organization to run child welfare.

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He said the transition to a new provider raises the risk to children in foster care. Case managers and others unsure of their employment may leave for other jobs, leaving children in the care of fewer and fewer people.

“I’m worried sick about the health and safety of kids,” Miller said. “Going through a traditional procurement process will kick the can down the road and we’ll be back in this situation again.”