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Rush to appoint foster care agency in Pinellas, Pasco could backfire, child welfare experts warn

Three agencies on Wednesday made presentations to state officials hoping to win the $80 million foster care contract for Pinellas and Pasco counties. None are from the Tampa Bay region.
The Florida Department of Children and Families is planning to appoint a new agency to run child welfare in Pinellas and Pasco counties. Some child welfare experts fear it is rushing the decision.
The Florida Department of Children and Families is planning to appoint a new agency to run child welfare in Pinellas and Pasco counties. Some child welfare experts fear it is rushing the decision.
Published Nov. 19

TAMPA — Florida’s privatized child welfare system is supposed to put control of foster care in the hands of local agencies who know their community.

But after terminating Clearwater nonprofit Eckerd Connects, the Florida Department of Children and Families seems set to choose a provider from outside of Tampa Bay for the $80 million contract to run foster care in Pinellas and Pasco.

The department has not released the names of the agencies that bid for the contract, but none of the three that made presentations Wednesday to Secretary Shevaun Harris and other department officials at a meeting in Largo are local.

The presentations were made by Kids Central, based in Wildwood, Fla., Family Support Services of Northeast Florida, which runs foster care in Duval and Nassau counties, and Lydia Home, an agency headquartered in Chicago.

Florida Department of Children and Families Secretary Shevaun Harris
Florida Department of Children and Families Secretary Shevaun Harris [ State of Florida ]

Of the three, Kids Central can claim the closest geographical tie to Pinellas and Pasco, which are administered as a single child welfare circuit. Kids Central serves as the lead foster care agency for a five-county circuit that runs from Marion County south to Hernando on Pasco’s northern border.

The state announced Nov. 1 that it would not renew Eckerd Connects’ contract after receiving reports from Pinellas Sheriff Bob Gualtieri that a child was injured and another overdosed while they were staying overnight in an unlicensed agency office. The nonprofit has faced criticism for a handful of high profile deaths of children under its watch and struggled to find long-term placements for teenagers who ended up sleeping in offices. It has since announced it will not ask the state to to extend its $86 million Hillsborough contract.

The Clearwater nonprofit’s contract was set to expire Dec. 31, leaving the state facing a time crunch. On Nov. 5, it announced an emergency bidding process for a five-year contract that gave interested parties just a week to respond.

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

This has alarmed some child welfare experts who fear the state will award a long-term contract without adequately vetting applicants and without giving stakeholders and the public enough time to provide feedback. Representatives of some local social services agencies were surprised on Wednesday when they were given only three hours’ notice about the Largo meeting.

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Under Florida law, the state could appoint a receiver to administer the foster care system on a temporary basis. Another option would be for the circuit’s Community Alliance, a group that includes the Juvenile Welfare Board and other stakeholders, to work with the state on an alternative model to run the system.

Roy Miller, president of Tallahassee nonprofit American Children’s Campaign, said he understands that the state feels it needs to move quickly, but said it would make sense to take more time for such a critical decision.

“The speed in which this is happening is shocking,” said Miller.

The appointment of Eckerd Connects to its Hillsborough contract in 2014 was done at the end of a nine-month process, said Robin Rosenberg, deputy director of Florida’s Children First, a statewide advocacy group. The community needs time to look at how well agencies have performed, she said, and the one chosen should reflect the community’s priorities for how often children are placed in group homes and how much the agency prioritizes reunifying families over finding adoptive parents.

The state’s decision not to announce the names of the bidding agencies is also disappointing, she said.

“This secrecy where they’re not publicly releasing the names before they’re announcing who is getting the contract is the antithesis of transparency,” she said.

Department officials did not respond to a phone call and email requesting comment. The Tampa Bay Times has made several requests under public records law for a list of bidders.

Related: Pinellas Sheriff launches criminal investigation into Eckerd Connects

Lydia Home, while based in Chicago, has a Florida connection. It is the parent organization of Safe Families for Children, which provides social services to families at risk of having their children removed. It has seven offices in Florida with roughly 25 employees and more than 400 volunteers, said Communications Director Cheri Jimenez.

“Safe Families is well established throughout the state,” she said. “We have worked very closely with the child welfare system.”

John Cooper, the chief executive officer of Kids Central, said his agency is best suited of the three applicants to run foster care in Pinellas and Pasco under the community-based care model.

He said he has relationships with several key social services providers in the two counties. If selected, he would appoint an executive director and governing board local to Tampa Bay.

“I’m not going to be making decisions,” he said. “I would have a leader on the ground in (the circuit) being engaged and being visible.”

Officials from Family Support Services of Northeast Florida confirmed they had bid, but declined to comment further.

It’s unclear whether the Jacksonville agency would be eligible to win the contract because it serves as the lead agency in the Jacksonville area. Florida law states that a lead foster care agency should be no bigger than two contiguous judicial circuits, a stipulation intended to stop bigger agencies from winning multiple foster care contracts across most of the state.

In the more than two decades since the state privatized its foster care system, half a dozen agencies have expanded by winning a second contract with the state, a trend that goes against the principle of local control, said Miller.

“DCF is appointing these larger conglomerates that are going to struggle to provide consistent quality services,” Miller said. “As the conglomerates grow, they are more and more removed from the community.”