Replace Hillsborough Kids Inc. with Eckerd Youth Alternatives, panel urges

Published Jan. 4, 2012

TAMPA — Hillsborough Kids Inc. has lost its leader and, as of Tuesday, is closer to losing its $65.5 million-a-year state contract.

An advisory panel voted to put competing Eckerd Youth Alternatives in charge of protecting Hillsborough County's most vulnerable children. Eckerd already plays a parallel role in Pinellas and Pasco counties.

HKI's current contract expires at the end of June. The decision, expected by Jan. 13, will rest with David Wilkins, secretary of the Florida Department of Children and Families.

Mike Carroll, chief of DCF's 11-county Suncoast region, said the unanimous vote of the advisory committee, made up of DCF officials and local children's activists, "will carry great weight" in Wilkins' decision.

HKI has been under scrutiny because of its safety record. In two years, eight children died under its watch. Seven were victims of previous abuse, neglect or abandonment.

DCF said no other agency in Florida had as many deaths.

"The vote was clearly a call for improved performance," Carroll said. "It was not totally related to the eight deaths over two years. It was broader than that."

The vote came days after HKI staff learned that CEO Jeff Rainey is ending his career with the agency. He will leave Hillsborough Kids within two to three months.

Rainey helped start HKI in 2001, when Florida began outsourcing children's protective services. It won the state contract in 2002, and Rainey became its CEO in 2005.

"I believe that leaving now is the natural progression of my leadership term," Rainey said in an earlier email. "It is just the right time."

After the vote, Rainey and HKI's chairwoman Mindy Murphy said they were surprised by the lopsided expression of no confidence. But they said HKI would have gladly sacrificed its contract if it could have saved even one of the dead children.

"Child welfare in this community is complicated," Rainey said. "There are no easy answers."

If DCF's secretary accepts Tuesday's recommendation, Murphy said HKI "will begin a six-month process toward dismantlement." The agency has about 115 employees. It also oversees six subcontractors, including the Children's Home Society and Mental Health Care Inc.

HKI has pressured subcontractors to improve monitoring of high-risk families, but tragedy struck one child after another.

Last year, two child deaths caused Hillsborough Kids to take action against Mental Health Care and the Children's Home Society.

Mental Health Care was found at fault in its monitoring of Ezekiel Mathis, a 1-year-old killed in May. Three workers apparently were unaware that a boyfriend they found living in the home had been barred by a judge. The boyfriend is charged with his murder. After the tragedy, MHC's $2.4 million contract was cut by $250,000.

Children's Home Society was cited for missing dangers 16-month-old Ronderique Anderson faced when he was taken from his mother and put in the care of his father. The father is charged with beating the baby to death in February. Children's Home Society, which is paid $5.1 million annually, was stripped of half its caseload.

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The subcontractors will continue to provide services at least for now, DCF's Carroll said. If Eckerd takes over, he said, it will decide any changes.

Panel members said they were impressed with improvements HKI has made, including more training for frontline workers and their supervisors and new software that flags high-risk cases. But they said the changes should have been made sooner.

Panel member Jan Gregory, DCF's regional deputy director, was in tears as she voted. She works just a parking lot away from HKI's giant headquarters on Florida Avenue.

"I know it's hard," she told HKI workers in the audience.

"But it's time for a change."