Eckerd faces contempt of court and claims of withholding information from foster parents

8 On Your Side

TAMPA, Fla. (WFLA) — As a criminal investigation into allegations of neglect by the state’s lead child welfare agency continues in Pinellas County, foster parents are expressing frustration over a lack of disclosure about the children they were asked to take into their homes.

Eckerd Connects’ current two contracts that cover three bay area counties will be allowed to expire after the Florida Department of Children and Families said the non-profit’s “actions and inactions” jeopardized the safety of foster children. The contract for Pinellas and Pasco ends on Dec. 31, while the one in Hillsborough ends June 30.

The agreements pay Eckerd $80 million this year.

Three years ago, an 8 On Your Side investigation that showed children waiting long hours in cars for their next bed to sleep in and others spending nights in offices revealed issues with night-to-night placements and a shortage of beds.

And a message from Eckerd to foster parents late last month stated there is still a “staggering amount of kids” and not enough beds.

But several foster parents, including Joshua Nwajei, insist the number of available beds is not the only issue.

“There’s probably like 100 beds that are open right now,” Nwajei said. “But foster parents are scared to death. What are the true behaviors of these children?”

Nwajei and other foster parents claim Eckerd has withheld key details from them.

“When you purposely hide information, we can’t really prepare,” Nwajei said. “Sexual abuse. History of being a sexual predator. Runaways. Medication issues. Bipolar. They don’t tell us.”

Some of the locations where children were placed were worse than the homes they were removed from, according to the Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri. He said Eckerd executives, now the target of his department’s criminal investigation, will face questions about what they knew.

“Did they know about kids having access to guns? Knowing about kids having their guts split open?” Gualtieri said. “Knowing about kids overdosing on drugs? It’s not about money. That’s about just failing.”

In a statement, Eckerd said the agency agreed to cooperate with the investigation.

In another new development that may offer a hint about frustration with the bay area child welfare system, an attorney who asked not to be identified said Hillsborough County Judge Robert Bauman held Eckerd Connects in contempt of court during a recent hearing. Family Court information is not public, and Eckerd spokesman Roger Bartlett said he could not offer any details.

“Because this is part of an ongoing legal proceeding, Eckerd Connects isn’t able to comment on the case at this time,” Bartlett said.

Bartlett said a Nov. 8 hearing on the case has been postponed.

“I don’t have a new hearing date to share,” he added.

No one from Eckerd or DCF would answer specific questions about the latest developments. Chris Card, the agency’s former chief of community care, said earlier this year Eckerd was committed to improving its services.

“We have limited resources to invest, but we are working hard,” Card said. “So, we’re open to suggestions, and soliciting input from anybody and everybody.”

Nwajei and other foster parents say their suggestions have not been welcome and they claim they are often left out of the process.

“If DCF wants to fix what’s going on, invite us to the table and we’ll tell you how you can fix this,” Nwajei said. “There’s no transparency to foster parents and you would think as us being their primary care givers in our homes, we would have the most information. And we don’t.”

DCF Suncoast Region Communications Director Natalie Harrell listed several issues with Eckerd including “failures to involve parents in case planning.”

“The department has deployed a team of experts from across the state to work alongside Eckerd in transitioning all administrative, financial, programmatic and quality assurance activities,” Harrell said.

There is no word yet on what agency will take over, but foster parents are concerned one of Eckerd’s subcontractors will get the job.

“I think that would bring the same communication issues,” Nwajei said. “We need someone new. The kids deserve better.”

Copyright 2022 Nexstar Media Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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