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State needs to use caution with Tampa Bay foster care | Editorial
Don’t let the debate over child services, resources and governance fall victim to a rush job.
Pinellas Sheriff Bob Gualtieri announced Nov. 4 that his office launched a criminal investigation into Eckerd Connects Community Alternatives, the agency that runs foster care in Pinellas and Pasco counties, after reports of accidents and improper care.
Pinellas Sheriff Bob Gualtieri announced Nov. 4 that his office launched a criminal investigation into Eckerd Connects Community Alternatives, the agency that runs foster care in Pinellas and Pasco counties, after reports of accidents and improper care. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]
This article represents the opinion of the Tampa Bay Times Editorial Board.
Published Nov. 22

The Florida Department of Children and Families is expected any day now to choose a new provider to run foster care services in Pinellas and Pasco counties. The state is up against a deadline, which is fueling a sense of urgency. But this decision is being rushed, and important considerations are being marginalized or ignored. The state needs to slow this process down, open it up and answer some straightforward questions about how a new provider would be an improvement.

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 Clearwater 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.

Last week, the department heard presentations from three bidders hoping to succeed Eckerd Connects. The agency’s contract was set to expire Dec. 31, leaving the state little time to make a transition. But the emergency bidding process is raising questions of its own and putting key issues at risk of being lost in the haste.

Child welfare advocates are rightly alarmed the state will award a long-term contract without adequately vetting the bidders or soliciting public input. To that end, the department sent exactly the wrong message by fast-tracking this selection process under a shroud of secrecy. DCF did not release the names of the bidders, which the Tampa Bay Times requested under Florida’s public records law. The Times independently verified the three agencies that made presentations last week, and none is local. Only one bidder has proximate geographical ties to the Tampa Bay area, given its operation in Hernando County.

The state needs to slow the rush job, open up about the applicants’ strengths and weaknesses and address what meaningful role this community will have in managing its foster population. Several immediate questions come to mind:

What new strategy will the state and the new provider bring to the table? Is this a question of resources, provider competence or both? Will the state increase its financial support for foster services here?

Is there something unique to Tampa Bay that explains its nagging problems with foster care? What strategies will the provider pursue to increase the availability of foster homes and improved security?

Will the new provider create a board of area community leaders? Any outside agency needs a sounding board, and residents here deserve a say in caring for the foster population. What guarantee is there that local voices will be heard?

Should the state rethink its policy of decentralizing foster services? After two decades of privatization, serious gaps still exist, both in delivering services and holding providers responsible for their part. Are there too many moving parts?

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Everyone knows the clock is running. But the goal here it not merely to find a replacement, but to address where and how Eckerd Connects fell short, and to draw clearer lines of responsibility for private and government providers alike. That’s a conversation for the entire community, which has an enormous stake in protecting its children, one of the most core functions of government at every level.

Editorials are the institutional voice of the Tampa Bay Times. The members of the Editorial Board are Editor of Editorials Graham Brink, Sherri Day, Sebastian Dortch, John Hill, Jim Verhulst and Chairman and CEO Paul Tash. Follow @TBTimes_Opinion on Twitter for more opinion news.