LARGO, Fla. (WFLA) — Officials with Eckerd Connects, the company that was hired to provide foster care services throughout Florida, say they don’t believe they have violated any laws, in response to the criminal investigation launched against the agency.

Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri announced his agency’s criminal investigation into the embattled foster care services company last week. He said the investigation stems from the sheriff’s office finding out that Eckerd was having kids live at their administrative offices in Largo. Gualtieri said the kids slept in dirty clothes on cots or under desks, and didn’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.”

After the announcement of the investigation, Eckerd leaders told staff that the agency had acted appropriately, and planned to contest the allegations of wrongdoing. 8 On Your Side obtained the email sent to Eckerd Connects employees:

“You have presumably heard about the law enforcement investigation into Eckerd Connects. We plan to cooperate with any law enforcement investigation. But, we believe that we have acted appropriately at all times and plan to defend ourselves and contest any allegations of wrongdoing.

It is possible that you may be asked to be interviewed by law enforcement. It is also possible that law enforcement officers may show up at your house. If you are contacted by law enforcement you should know that you have certain rights.  If you want to speak to law enforcement officers, you are free to do so. If you don’t want to speak to law enforcement you don’t have to (unless they serve you with a subpoena for testimony at a later date). Finally, if you want a lawyer to represent you during any meeting with law enforcement, that is your right.

Please be polite to law enforcement. If they contact you, you may want to ask for their business card or contact information. No matter your decision if law enforcement asks to speak to you, we would appreciate if you would let Martin Peters, General Counsel for Eckerd Connects, know that law enforcement reached out to you.”

Rebecca Kapusta, Chief of Community Based Care for Eckerd Connects

A spokesperson with Eckerd said the email was “prepared by Eckerd’s legal counsel and is typical in these types of investigations.”

“As we have said, Eckerd Connects will fully cooperate with the sheriff’s office investigation and we have made clear to all employees that they are free to speak with law enforcement officials if contacted,” the spokesperson continued.

Eckerd sent the following statement in response to the investigation and email:

“While we do not believe Eckerd Connects has violated any laws, we intend to cooperate with the investigation and have made clear to all employees that they are free to speak with investigators. We believe it was also appropriate to inform them of their legal rights. We are committed to serving children and families in this community.” 

According to Gualtieri, the Largo Police Department responded to the Eckerd administrative offices about 30 times in a month because the children living there were 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.”

Eckerd and Florida’s Department of Children and Families previously severed ties, announcing that the company’s contracts with Pasco, Pinellas and Hillsborough counties would 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.