ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. (WFLA) – Eckerd Connects, the company that was contracted to provide foster care services across Florida, is currently under criminal investigation for what a Tampa Bay sheriff calls child abuse and child neglect.
Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri announced Thursday afternoon his agency’s criminal investigation into the troubled foster care company. He said the investigation stemmed from the fact that the sheriff’s office discovered last week that Eckerd had children living in their administrative offices in Largo.
According to Gualtieri, the children were taken from their homes due to abuse or neglect and should have been placed in the care of a family member or in foster care. But Eckerd, he said, has about 60 to 70 children in a “night-to-night” situation, meaning they have no homes and are moved to different locations each night.
“Some of the children that Eckerd can’t house at all, even in some of these ‘night-to-night’ places, are housed in their administrative offices,” the sheriff said. “The best information we have is that on average they house about six children a night in these offices.”
Gualtieri said children slept in dirty clothes on beds or under desks and had no access to toiletries, towels or hot meals.
“The conditions in which these children live in the offices of Eckerd are frankly disgusting and deplorable,” he said. “The conditions are as bad or worse than the living conditions the children were taken from.”
According to Gualtieri, the Largo Police Department has responded to administrative offices about 30 times in the past month because the children who live there are disruptive, causing trouble with staff members and fleeing the offices. He also described cases of children being physically injured or overdosing on unsafe medication.
“Think about this situation for a minute. We have children who are unfortunately abused and neglected by their parents. We remove children because the environment they live in is so bad that it is too dangerous to leave them in their own home with their mom and dad or the caregivers,” Gualtieri said. “We are handing over these children to the organization that receives tens of millions of dollars in state money and is supposed to be a safe place. . and this organization houses them in deplorable and filthy conditions.”
The sheriff said Eckerd also placed the children “from night to night” in unlicensed facilities.
“I believe the situation created by Eckerd constitutes child abuse and neglect,” Gualtieri said. “A legal person can be charged with a crime. And Eckerd as an entity and senior management individually are the subjects of our investigation…but the scope of that investigation may expand as we move forward.
Gualtieri noted that the survey did not concern assembly line workers who “did what they could with the resources they had or, in many cases, did not have.”
Eckerd released a statement shortly after the sheriff’s press conference, saying he was taking the criminal investigation “extremely seriously.”
“Eckerd will cooperate fully with the sheriff’s office in its investigation. Eckerd Connects mission is to support the health and well-being of children and families in need in the Tampa Bay area, and we will not tolerate any act of neglect or abuse by any of our employees. or contracting agencies,” a spokesperson said.
For years, 8 On Your Side has exposed issues with Eckerd Connects, including children sleeping alone in offices, instead of foster homes, and children spending hours sitting in cars in Wawa parking lots while waiting. reception beds.
Eckerd and the Florida Department of Children and Families severed ties earlier this week, announcing that the company’s contracts with Pasco, Pinellas and Hillsborough counties will not be renewed when they expire. The deals at Pasco and Pinellas are due to expire on December 31 while Hillsborough County’s contract expires in June 2022.
DCF officials blamed Eckerd, citing “repeated failures” for the decision not to renew. In a letter to Eckerd, DCF Secretary Shevaun Harris accused them of jeopardizing “the health, safety and well-being of dependent children in your care.” In return, Eckerd blamed the lack of funding and resources.