TAMPA, Fla. (WFLA) — After months of preparation, Eckerd Connects will no longer manage or staff Hillsborough County’s child welfare programs, making way for Children’s Network of Southwest Florida to take its place.
After Florida officials chose not to continue work with Eckerd Connects in Pasco and Pinellas counties, the company chose not to renew its contract in Hillsborough County. Eckerd informed the state and county it would not seek to renew its contract with the county upon its expiration. The company still provided for its obligations and services to the children and families of Hillsborough County through June 30.
Officials from the Florida Department of Children and Families cited “repeated failures” as reason to end the contract and not pursue renewals. Department Secretary Shevaun Harris wrote in a letter to Eckerd that the company’s actions put children in danger.
“Eckerd’s recent actions and inactions have jeopardized the health, safety and welfare of the dependent children under your care,” Harris wrote in her letter to Eckerd. “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.”
In December, DCF announced that Jacksonville-based Family Support Services of North Florida would take over the Pinellas and Pasco contracts. In March, Children’s Network of Southwest Florida announced it would become the lead care agency for the Hillsborough CBC contract.
As previously reported, transition meetings between Eckerd and FSS started in January for Pasco and Pinellas counties.
The change of control means almost 200 Eckerd workers lose their jobs, according to the Florida WARN notices board. Eckerd Community Alternatives was required to provide notice to the state, per federal law, that they were laying off staff.
The company’s notice provided listed 176 employees who would no longer be employed by Eckerd, as of June 30. The notice, provided on April 14, indicated “The entire facility will be closed and all employees at the facility will be impacted,” saying the closure would likely be permanent.
Since the announcement, details on the new operation, which will be at a different location than the Eckerd site on N. Florida Avenue in Tampa, have been scant.
It is unknown how many staff will be involved in the new operation, nor has it been disclosed where the non-profit will operate in the county. DCF has not listed Children’s Network or subsidiary provider Camelot Community Care as the lead agency for Circuit 13, which is Hillsborough County.
Children’s Network of Southwest Florida released a statement from CEO Nadereh Salim in March, expressing enthusiasm for becoming the lead agency in the circuit.
“We are delighted to be awarded this new contract and the opportunity to make an even greater difference in the lives of children and families in the Sunshine State,” Salim said. “We are committed to giving our very best every day to help create a comprehensive system of care that is responsive to the needs of the community and can result in the best outcomes possible for children and families in Tampa and all of Hillsborough County.”
Children’s Network is not listed as the DCF lead care agency yet on the agency website, nor does it have more information on its own organization site as to plans in Hillsborough, aside from the announcement in March. Children’s Network lists Camelot Community Care as a provider of services in multiple parts of Florida. Camelot, based in Clearwater, will become the lead agency in Hillsborough on behalf of Children’s Network in July.
Camelot currently lists a Clearwater location and two sites in Tampa for operation, though details on operations to replace Eckerd were not available. The company has not posted new entries to its news section since Nov. 2, 2020.
In Florida, the DCF has a system known as Community-Based Care, which “combines the outsourcing of foster care and related services to competent service agencies with an increased local community ownership of service delivery and design.”
According to DCF, the program pairs non-profit agencies in local regions with local communities to provide welfare services to children in need. Those children include those “who have been abused, neglected, and/or abandoned.”
The non-profit organization that was in charge of the local children’s care in Hillsborough County was Eckerd Community Alternatives, also known as Eckerd Connects. The company operated child welfare offices on behalf of the state in Hillsborough, Pasco, and Pinellas counties.
On Nov. 1, DCF announced the end of contracts with Eckerd in the three Tampa Bay counties, saying the contracts would not be renewed when they expired. In Pasco and Pinellas counties, the contracts ended on Dec. 31. For Hillsborough, the contract ended Thursday.
Twenty-one Camelot contracts with the Florida Department of Juvenile Justice ended on March 16, with a collective 193 employees removed from employment as a result, according to the Florida WARN logs. When reaching out to DJJ, WFLA.com learned the contracts had simply ended, and care at the facilities in question had shifted to VitalCore Health Strategies on March 17.
WFLA.com has reached out to DCF, Camelot, and Children’s Network for clarification of the new plans for continuance of care, and other details on the operation once Eckerd’s exit in Hillsborough County has completed.