Eckerd Connects plans to tackle criminal investigations

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CLEARWATER – Eckerd Connects has publicly pledged to cooperate with the criminal investigation into its treatment of children who, said Pinellas Sheriff Bob Gualtieri, have been kept in appalling conditions in an office building.

But privately, a senior Eckerd Connects executive told employees the association had done nothing wrong.

“We believe we have acted appropriately at all times and plan to defend ourselves and dispute any allegations of wrongdoing,” wrote Community Care Manager Rebecca Kapusta in the Nov. 2 email obtained by the Tampa Bay weather.

Meanwhile, across the bay, Eckerd Connects admitted on Tuesday that it was doing the same in Hillsborough County: 23 children in the agency’s care slept a combined total of 42 nights in unlicensed offices in October instead of being placed with a qualified host family. houses.

A similar situation occurred in September, when 15 host families the children slept in the offices a total of 38 times.

The disconnection is another sign of the issues that have long plagued Eckerd Connects, the Clearwater nonprofit whose years of providing child welfare services in the Tampa Bay area will end next year.

Related: Pinellas Sheriff opens criminal investigation into Eckerd Connects

Last week, the Ministry of Children and Families decided not to renew Eckerd Connects’ $ 80 million contract to manage child protection services in Pinellas and Pasco counties. The association has announced that it will forgo its $ 87 million contract to provide these services to Hillsborough upon termination of that contract in June 2022.

The upheaval has created anxiety among those working in child welfare on both sides of Tampa Bay.

At a meeting of Hillsborough leaders of child welfare organizations and other stakeholders on Tuesday, Kapusta pledged Eckerd Connects will work to ensure a smooth transition to a new foster care agency in all three counties .

But there is concern that job uncertainty will lead case managers to seek new work, further weighing down those who remain. Eckerd’s Hillsborough office has 91 case managers, but 45% of positions are currently vacant. This means that 60 of the 91 staff members handle cases of more than 30 children.

Florida law does not limit the number of children in the care of a single case manager, but it does require the Department of Children and Families to provide enough funding for each case manager to have a caseload. maximum of 19. This is based on a ‘best practice’ standard established by the Child Welfare League of America.

“It is clear that things are not working and things have not worked,” said the Hillsborough circuit judge. Katherine Essrig, who deals with family and addiction court cases. “We have to see this as an opportunity to take a different approach. “

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

Time is running out to find a new supplier for Pinellas and Pasco counties when Eckerd Connects contract expires on December 31.

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State officials announced last week that they are starting an emergency procurement process to find a new child protection agency. The deadline to apply is Friday. State officials have not commented on what they will do if there are no bids for the contract.

So far, no agency has come forward to take over either child protection district, Kapusta told attendees at Tuesday’s meeting.

The end of Eckerd Connects’ Pinellas and Pasco contract means child protection workers face layoffs. Over 230 notices were sent to employees on November 2 informing them that their employment will end on December 31.

An accompanying email notes that when hosting agencies are replaced, more than 90 percent of workers are retained by the new supplier. But it is not known whether these employees will lose their accumulated leave, their leave and their seniority.

Eckerd Connects supported foster families in Pinellas and Pasco (as a combined district) in 2008 and Hillsborough services in 2014. Since then the two child welfare districts have grown to become the largest in Florida. There are over 2,600 children in foster care, relatives or group homes in Pinellas and Pasco, and over 2,400 in Hillsborough.

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

The Department for Children and Families has repeatedly warned Eckerd Connects since 2018 that it must stop placing children in unlicensed facilities in Hillsborough. A group of 10 child protection experts tasked with identifying problems in Hillsborough’s foster care system released a scathing report showing particular concern for children who have been moved from house to house and often do not have access to laundry, hygiene products and nutritious or home-cooked foods.

Gualtieri reiterated many of these concerns when he announced last week that his office was launching a criminal investigation into Eckerd Connects. He said the children were sleeping in “appalling” conditions, a situation that came to light after officers in Largo reported to the state child abuse hotline and the state’s office. Pinellas County Sheriff after the child left the office with two other children and was injured. fall off a ladder.

Eckerd officials said many of the children who end up sleeping in offices are mostly older teens, some of whom refuse placements. Others are children with serious behavioral problems or who have recently been released from juvenile detention centers.

But in some cases, children only began to refuse placements after being repeatedly sent from house to house, according to records. DCF created a task force this year to try to develop a plan on how to deal with older troubled teens who refuse placements.

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