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DCF and Eckerd Connects part ways, will not renew child welfare contracts in Pinellas, Pasco & Hillsborough

Eckerd Connects
Posted at 5:59 PM, Nov 03, 2021
and last updated 2021-11-03 18:24:55-04

TAMPA BAY, Fla — It’s a tough job with high turnover and it means child welfare case managers who stick with it can become overwhelmed.

“When there aren’t enough of them that means the ones that are working have far too many cases to be able to do a good job for every child,” said Robin Rosenberg, the Deputy Director of Florida’s Children First, a non-profit organization that advocates for the rights of kids served by state agencies.

Throughout the last decade, Eckerd Connects has been contracted through the Department of Children and Families to provide services to children and their families in Hillsborough, Pinellas and Pasco county.

“We’ve been trying very hard to get the legislature to have the money follow the children and to redo an allocation,” said Ray Ferrara, the Chair of Eckerd Connects. “We just are not capable of providing the adequate services given the inadequate funding.”

Ferrara says that’s what drove their decision to not bid for a renewal of its contracts with DCF. It says other counties with fewer kids get millions more in funding.

On November 1st DCF sent a letter to the head of Eckerd Connects that said it would not renew the contracts because it felt, “Eckerd’s recent actions and inactions have jeopardized the health, safety and welfare of dependent children…” The letter goes on to say the agency placed kids in unlicensed settings for long periods of time and was not good at finding them stable homes.

“Myself, and many other people in the field felt it was about time,” Rosenberg said. “Eckerd has been struggling for several years to do a good to do a good job for children and parents on both sides of the bay.”

She points to corrective action plans from this year that show children were forced to sleep in offices because they had nowhere to go.

“Whenever you have people who shouldn’t be living in an office you’re gonna have a problem,” she said.

Ferrara says that illustrates the need for more money.

“Is it true? The answer is yes,” he said, about kids sleeping in offices. “And a lot of that was a direct result of the lack of funding and being able to find enough families to take them and remembering the children can refuse the services.”

“For a kid to have to sleep in their office is unacceptable. And that angers me,” said State Representative Chris Latvala, who represents District 67 in Pinellas County.

Latvala says the tragic case of Jordan Belliveau was an example of Eckerd Connects inability to do the job.

Just this past weekend, according to the Largo Police Department, three kids attempted to climb a ladder in the back of the Eckerd Connects largo facility when one fell and injured himself. Officers say he will be OK, but a DCF referral was made due to concerns over a lack of staff supervision.

Latvala also questions the funding issue after a Florida inspector general report showed the agency's chief of community-based care, Chris Card, made nearly $24,000 more than the statutory compensation limit.

“You can’t complain about being underfunded when your CEO makes $750,000 a year. And your community-based person makes above what the DCF secretary makes, which is not allowable by law,” said Latvala.

Ferrara says none of the CEO’s salary is allocated to any of the state contracts and he says Chris Card is in charge of both circuits 6 and 13 and they allocated 50% of his salary for each. He says they thought they were saving the state money by not having to hire someone else.

But, Ferrara says they’re happy to refund the money.

Ferrara says either way Eckerd Connects will help whatever agency DCF chooses to take its place transition into the lead agency.

“We are more than prepared to share our intellectual knowledge and property to these new providers, there’s no reason for them to re-create the wheel but at the same time they need to they need to go in their own direction,” he said.

When asked if the next lead agency were to come to the legislature asking for additional funding, Latvala said it's not off the table.

I mean I think we have to look at it first and foremost. I think it’s important that their executives don’t make more than what the law allows. But I think it’s some thing that we would certainly look at,” he said.