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DCF and Eckerd Connects are ending child welfare contracts in Pinellas, Pasco and Hillsborough

adult hand holding a child's hand

The state says Eckerd jeopardized kids' health and safety. The Clearwater nonprofit blames a lack of funding.

The Florida Department of Children and Families is not renewing its contract with Eckerd Connects to provide foster care services in Pasco and Pinellas counties. The Clearwater nonprofit announced it is also walking away from a contract in Hillsborough County.

DCF Secretary Shevaun Harris informed the agency about its decision in a memo addressed to Rebecca Kapusta, Eckerd’s chief of community-based care, on Monday.

“Eckerd’s recent actions and inactions have jeopardized the health, safety and welfare of the dependent children under your care.

"Coupled with a history of placing youth in unlicensed settings for extended periods of time, and repeated failure to secure appropriate and stable placements for all children in Eckerd’s system of care, they call into question your ability to fulfill your contractual obligations,” Harris said.

Eckerd became the lead operator of community-based care in a circuit that serves both Pinellas and Pasco in 2014 and its contract was set to expire at the end of this year. But the agency has had a troubled past in the region.

The state has criticized Eckerd in recent years for poorly handling cases in which children died while under the agency's watch, and for temporarily housing kids in offices. The nonprofit is currently being investigated by the state’s inspector general for overpaying its top executive.

Eckerd officials said in a press release that they had already decided to discontinue the state contract, and one in Hillsborough, on Oct. 26, ahead of DCF's announcement.

They called the contracts "woefully underfunded" and claimed that even though Eckerd's programs in Hillsborough and Pinellas-Pasco each serve more children than the child welfare program in Miami-Dade, that county receives millions more in funding than the ones in the Tampa Bay area.

The release cited previous instances when officials warned the state about needing more resources.

“Our focus in this region and throughout the State of Florida has always been on what is best for children and families. We have repeatedly expressed concerns to state officials and legislators about the mismatch between inadequate funding levels and the growing needs in the Tampa/St. Petersburg area. We regret that it has come to this, but we simply cannot continue under the current circumstances,” Board Chair V. Raymond Ferrara said.

Eckerd officials said they remain committed to serving children until the contracts expire and will work to ensure a smooth transition to a new social services provider in the coming months.

The contract in Hillsborough County is set to expire next June.

I cover health care for WUSF and the statewide journalism collaborative Health News Florida. I’m passionate about highlighting community efforts to improve the quality of care in our state and make it more accessible to all Floridians. I’m also committed to holding those in power accountable when they fail to prioritize the health needs of the people they serve.
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