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Courts / Law

Eckerd Connects is being investigated for housing children in 'deplorable' conditions

A man in a black uniform stands at a podium against a gray wall.
Daylina Miller
/
WUSF Public Media
In a press conference Thursday, Sheriff Bob Gualtieri said Eckerd Connects as an entity, and senior management employees, could face charges of child abuse and neglect.

Eckerd Connects, a contractor under the Department of Children and Families, is being investigated for housing abused, neglected children in its office spaces where several have been hurt.

Eckerd Connects, a contractor under the Department of Children and Families, is being investigated for housing abused, neglected children its Largo office spaces where several have been hurt.

In a press conference Thursday, Sheriff Bob Gualtieri said Eckerd Connects as an entity, and senior management employees, could face charges of child abuse and neglect.

Gualtieri said the agency receives tens of millions of dollars, as a community-based care provider contracted by the Department of Children and Families. It oversees children whose home lives are being investigated in cases of abuse or neglect, and places them in foster care if necessary.

Instead, Gualtieri, some children were being housed in deplorable conditions at the agency's offices in Largo, with limited adult supervision.

“The children sleep on cots," Gualtieri said. "For some cases, they sleep under the desks. They sleep in dirty clothes. They don't have toiletries or towels, and they don't have access to hot meals while they're sleeping in those administrative offices.”

“The conditions in which these children have been living that echoes offices, frankly is disgusting and deplorable. The conditions are as bad or worse than the living conditions from which the children were removed.”

The sheriff cited other examples of neglect, including children who suffered physical injuries and overdosed on medication that was not safely stored.

In one instance, he said a child was placed in the care of a person with pending drug and racketeering charges.

Gualtieri said the Large Police Department has responded about 30 times to these offices over the last month at all hours of the day and night because the children sleeping and living there are disruptive, causing problems with the staff and running away.

The sheriff said he wants to make it clear that frontline workers are not being targeted in the investigation.

“It’s not about those line people who were making a few bucks an hour who were doing what they could, with the resources that they had, or in many cases did not have, as provided by their employer,” he said.

The Department of Children and Families announced earlier this week it was not renewing Eckerd Connects' contract in Pinellas and Pasco. It will also no longer serve Hillsborough County.

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