Police reported Eckerd Connects incident to DCF week before state cut ties

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

New information may be shedding light on why the state did not renew its contract with Eckerd Connects, which is paid to take care of foster children in Hillsborough, Pasco and Pinellas 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.

For years 8 On Your Side has uncovered issues with Eckerd Connects, including children sleeping alone in offices, and kids waiting for hours in cars in gas station parking lots while they searched for a foster bed night after night.

“It is frustrating. Significant issues were brought to light by your station,” said Robin Rosenberg, Deputy Director of Florida’s Children First

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.”

8 On Your Side found that on Oct. 26, Largo Police reported Eckerd Connects to DCF after three children were found climbing a ladder behind one of its offices late at night, and one kid got hurt.

Police tell 8 On Your Side they reported to DCF concerns about the lack of staff supervision.

Largo Police confirmed to 8 On Your Side that in the last week, they have responded to 22 calls at the same Eckerd Connects office located on Ulmerton Road.

“This crisis this weekend had to be a significant factor in this,” said Rosenberg, who believes the move is long overdue.

“Far too often Eckerd is falling down on the job. Children are not been well served. Parents are not getting help they need to get their children back. Eckerd has not succeeded in fixing the problems,” said Rosenberg.

Eckerd blamed lack of funding and resources.

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.”

Eckerd Connects would not comment on the recent incident, but admitted to 8 on your side kids have again been sleeping in offices. Eckerd Connects emailed the following statement to 8 On Your Side:

“Given the recent increase in youth being referred to Eckerd Connects and the seriousness of their needs, it has resulted in some youth spending the night at Eckerd Connects office facilities, under supervision by our staff. Eckerd Connects is unable to speak to specific incidences involving youth in our care due to confidentiality.”

DCF did not respond to requests from 8 On Your Side to confirm whether the recent incident played a role in the state’s decision not to renew the contract with Eckerd Connects, as well as plans for the future of the foster care system.

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.

Copyright 2021 Nexstar Media Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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