DCF, Eckerd Connects ending child welfare services contracts in 3 Tampa Bay counties

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DCF cites safety concerns, Eckerd blames lack of funding

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TAMPA, Fla. (WFLA) — Eckerd Connects, the company that was hired to provide foster care services throughout Florida, will no longer serve several Tampa Bay counties.

Eckerd and the Florida Department of Children and Families announced Monday 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. In a statement, DCF said it will not renew those contracts. Eckerd added that it plans on carrying out its contract in Hillsborough County until it expires June 30, 2022.

Eckerd blamed lack of funding and resources, but DCF officials placed blame on Eckerd, citing “repeated failures for the decision to not renew.

“Eckerd’s recent actions and inactions have jeopardized the health, safety and welfare of the dependent children under your care,” DCF Secretary Shevaun Harris wrote in a 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.”

Following that notice from the state, Eckerd Connects said its board of directors chose on Oct. 26 to end the contracts with the two facilities they operate in Tampa Bay that provide services in Pasco, Pinellas and Hillsborough counties. The company made the decision after completing a “thorough assessment of current state funding levels and the growing needs of children in the three counties.”

In a statement from Eckerd sent to 8 On Your Side, the company said it had been informed by DCF that the state department would be transitioning to a new provider in Pasco and Pinellas in the next 60 days.

“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,” Board Chair V. Raymond Ferrara said. “We regret that it has come to this, but we simply cannot continue under the current circumstances.”

The statement from Eckerd said for two years, the company has seen a 40 percent increase in the amount of children removed from their homes by law enforcement and put in their care, but the funding to properly help the children has lagged behind.

Despite caring for more children in the programs in Tampa Bay, Eckerd said it receives millions of dollars less in funding here than in counties with fewer children, such as Miami-Dade County.

“Both the Hillsborough and Pinellas-Pasco child welfare contracts are woefully under-funded, despite Eckerd’s best efforts to increase financial resources available to serve youths and families in Tampa Bay,” Eckerd Connects said in a statement. “As a comparison, Hillsborough County serves nearly 1,500 children more than Miami-Dade but receives $20.3 million less in state funding. Pinellas and Pasco counties serve 1,745 more children than Miami-Dade and receive $27.4 million less in state funding.”

The Eckerd Board reportedly warned the DCF in 2016 and 2018 about funding falling short in Pinellas and Pasco counties. The company sent multiple letters “from the Eckerd Connects Board Chair to the state agency sounded the alarm about insufficient funding in all three counties, concluding that ‘the extreme underfunding in Tampa Bay’ is ‘causing tragic consequences for children and families.'”

While the company will end the contracts with the Hillsborough, Pasco and Pinellas counties, it says the move will not have an effect on work it does in other parts of Florida, or the other 20 states it performs services in.

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