ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. (WFLA) — Eckerd Connects, the company that was hired to provide foster care services throughout Florida, is now under criminal investigation for what one Tampa Bay sheriff calls child abuse and neglect.
Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri announced his agency’s criminal investigation into the embattled foster care services company on Thursday afternoon. He said the investigation stems from the sheriff’s office finding out last week that Eckerd was having kids live at their administrative offices in Largo.
According to Gualtieri, the children were removed from their homes because of 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 on a “night-to-night” status, meaning they don’t have housing and are moved to different places each night.
“Some of the kids Eckerd cannot place at all, even in some of these ‘night-to-night’ locations, are housed at their administrative offices,” the sheriff said. “The best information we have is, on average, they’re housing about six kids a night in those offices.”
Gualtieri said the kids sleep in dirty clothes on cots or under desks, and don’t have access to toiletries, towels or hot meals.
“The conditions in which these children have been living at Eckerd’s offices, frankly, is disgusting and deplorable,” he said. “The conditions are as bad or worse than the living conditions from which the children were removed.”
According to Gualtieri, the Largo Police Department has responded to the administrative offices about 30 times in the past month because the children living there are disruptive, causing problems with staff members and running away from the offices. He also described instances of the children being physically injured or overdosing on medication that was left unsecured.
“Think about this situation for a minute. We have kids who are sadly abused and neglected by their parents. We remove the children because the environment they’re living in is so bad that it’s too dangerous to leave them in their own homes with their moms and their dad or caregivers,” Gualtieri said. “We turn these kids over to the organization that receives tens of millions of dollars in state money and is supposed to be a safe place… and that organization houses them in deplorable, dirty conditions.”
The sheriff said Eckerd also placed the “night-to-night” children in unlicensed facilities.
“I believe the situation created by Eckerd constitutes child abuse and neglect,” Gualtieri said. “A corporate entity 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 this investigation may expand as we move forward.”
Gualtieri did note that the investigation is not about the line workers who were “doing what they could with what resources they had or, in many cases, didn’t have.”
Eckerd released a statement shortly after the sheriff’s news conference, saying that it’s taking the criminal investigation “extremely seriously.”
“Eckerd will provide its full cooperation to the sheriff’s office in its investigation. Eckerd Connects’ mission is to support the health and wellbeing of children and families in need in the Tampa Bay area, and we will not tolerate any acts of neglect or abuse by any of our staff or subcontracted agencies,” a spokesperson said.
For years, 8 On Your Side has exposed problems with Eckerd Connects including children sleeping alone in offices, instead of foster homes, and kids spending hours sitting in cars in Wawa parking lots waiting for foster beds.
Eckerd and Florida’s 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 agreements in Pasco and Pinellas are set to expire on Dec. 31 while Hillsborough County’s contract expires in June 2022.
DCF officials placed blame on Eckerd, citing “repeated failures” for the decision to not renew. In a letter to Eckerd, DCF Secretary Shevaun Harris accused them of jeopardizing “the health, safety and welfare of the dependent children under your care.” In return, Eckerd blamed lack of funding and resources.