TAMPA, Fla. (WFLA) – The transition from embattled Eckerd Connects to the new child welfare lead agency in Pasco and Pinellas Counties will coincide with rebuilding the system that cares for the area’s most vulnerable children and works with families at their worst moments.
Florida Department of Children and Families Secretary Shevaun Harris was in Tampa on Friday and spoke publicly about the change for the first time since Family Support Services of North Florida was given the contract that involves care for more than 3,600 children.
Eckerd had been the lead agency in Pasco and Pinellas since 2008 and received $80 million from the state this year as the Tampa Bay area’s lead child welfare agency.
“We really want to build a new day,” Harris said. “And have things be better and different than the experiences that those who are being served and who have been working in this field have experienced in the past.”
8 On Your Side has spent years investigating cases of foster children sleeping in Eckerd offices and waiting long hours in cars for their next home.
And now the Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office is investigating the non-profit for alleged child abuse and neglect. An Eckerd spokesperson has said the agency did not violate any laws.
Harris called the transition an opportunity to rebuild the Tampa Bay area child welfare system.
“Making sure we have stronger front-end processes to insure we are keeping families intact whenever possible,” Harris said. “And that we are only removing [children] when necessary.”
The flip side involves the children who are removed.
Jason Pisani, now 18, lived in mangroves in Clearwater for several days when he was 12, instead of accepting a new placement.
“I just ran away. I ran through the mud,” Pisani recalled.
Pisani said Eckerd and DCF never considered his concerns when a placement decision was made and he added the system made him feel like a number, not a child.
“Absolutely,” Pisani said. “That’s what you are in the foster care system. It’s all about funding. They want to get you off their list.”
David Denorcy is one of the many children who had to sleep in an Eckerd office in Largo.
“No mattress, no pillow. Not even a cot,” Denorcy said.
There are also foster parents who say neither Eckerd nor DCF listened to their ideas and suggestions.
Denise Robinson said she warned caseworkers about reuniting an infant she had raised since he was 11 days old with his mother, 27-year-old Savannah Jo Coffey. Coffey, of Lakeland, was arrested only days later for alleged child abuse.
“Devastated,” Robinson said, reflecting on the child’s injuries. “Devastated.”
Harris said Family Support Services has a proven track record, and she added DCF’s goal is to listen to everyone involved while also trying to reduce the case load.
“[We want to get] kids out of our foster care system and find permanency as quickly as possible,” Harris said.
Family Support Services has yet to respond to requests for comment.
The first transition meeting between Eckerd and the Jacksonville based agency was held Wednesday and foster parents have been told there will not be a disruption in services or payments after the new contract begins Jan. 1.
The contract in Hillsborough County involving more than 3,000 children ends in June and Eckerd has said it plans on allowing that agreement to expire without submitting a new bid.