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

Family Support Services of North Florida won an $80 million contract to replace Eckerd Connects beginning Jan. 1.
The Florida Department of Children and Families appointed Family Support Services of Northeast Florida as the 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 appointed Family Support Services of Northeast Florida as the agency to run child welfare in Pinellas and Pasco counties. Some child welfare experts fear it is rushing the decision.
Published Nov. 24
Updated Nov. 24

A Jacksonville-based agency will run foster care in Pinellas and Pasco beginning in the new year.

Florida’s Department of Children and Families confirmed Wednesday that it has chosen Family Support Services of North Florida as the provider of the $80 million, five-year contract after terminating Clearwater nonprofit Eckerd Connects earlier this month.

“FSS has proven to be successful in caring for children in Northeast Florida while offering a robust continuum of services,” said the department’s secretary, Shevaun Harris. “This is our opportunity to rebuild the system of care in these counties that truly addresses the needs of children and families it serves by engaging the community to leverage all available resources. We looked for a qualified lead agency who knew how to activate the community and reach partners, and we know that FSS will work diligently to carry this out in Circuit 6.”

Three agencies made presentations to Harris and other department officials at a Largo meeting on Nov. 17 — none were local.

They included Kids Central of Wildwood and Lydia Home, which is headquartered in Chicago.

The rush to appoint a new agency to Pinellas and Pasco comes after the state announced on Nov. 1 that it would not extend its $86 million contract with Eckerd Connects. The department had received reports from Pinellas Sheriff Bob Gualtieri that one child was injured and another overdosed while staying overnight at 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.

Because Eckerd’s contract expires Dec. 31, an emergency bidding process was announced on Nov. 5 for a new contract.

Family Support Services of North Florida runs foster care in Duval and Nassau counties. In January, Pinellas and Pasco counties will be added to its service areas, challenging the Florida law that a lead foster care agency should be no larger than two contiguous judicial circuits.

That legislation is intended to prohibit bigger agencies from securing contracts across most of the state.

Some child welfare experts said they fear the decision came without sufficient vetting time.

“We’re very disappointed that DCF did not take more time to get community input before reaching this decision,” said Robin Rosenberg, deputy director of the advocacy group Florida’s Children First. “The concept is the lead agency should be working closely with partners in their community to develop solutions for the kids, the families.”

Rosenberg said that Family Support Service’s Jacksonville base may pose a challenge to providing quality community-based care in Pinellas and Pasco.

The agency has low caseworker turnover and reasonable caseloads, she said, but she is unsure how it will fare as it inherits an unstable system in Pinellas and Pasco.

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“We’ve been successful in part because of our ability to mobilize available resources in the community and build lasting relationships,” said FSS president and CEO Jenn Petion in a statement.

The agency is looking to continue this work in Pasco and Pinellas counties, Petion said.

”We can accomplish this by putting in place a strong local leadership team that will work to implement a model of family preservation that we know, through experience, can reduce the number of children in state care.”

The Foundation for a Healthy St. Petersburg provides partial funding for Tampa Bay Times stories on equity. It does not select story topics and is not involved in the reporting or editing.