ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — The Pinellas County Sheriff, Bob Gualtieri, announced Thursday that a criminal investigation focusing on "institutional abuse of children" is now open involving top executives at Eckerd Connects.
The company was contracted by DCF to provide welfare services to children removed from homes deemed unsafe by the state and to their families for reunification. Its contract in Pinellas and Pasco County expires in December of 2021 and next summer in Hillsborough County.
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.
A spokesperson for Eckerd Connects says the board decided at the end of October it would not bid for renewal and said funding was the main reason the agency couldn't provide adequate services.
According to the sheriff, 60-70 children are on night-to-night status. This means they have no home placement and are moved to a different location every night. Some of those kids can't be placed and are housed at the administrative offices in Largo. The sheriff estimated about six children a night sleep in those offices.
These children are reported to sleep on cots and under desks with dirty clothes with no access to toiletries or hot meals. Law enforcement has responded about 30 times to the administrative offices. The sheriff went on to say the conditions are disgusting and are as bad or worse as the homes they are removed from.
"These are kids that have been removed because the situation they were in at their homes was so bad that we felt we couldn't leave them there under a safety plan and with any type of in-home services," he said. "So, we have to put them in a place that is safe and they went to a place that is bad or worse than the place we took them from. That's the crux of it. The rest of it is all excuses at this point as far as I'm concerned."
Children have been injured, one fell off the roof and cut their stomach on metal — they needed to be taken to hospital. Other allegations include children having access to unsecured medicine. One child overdosed on his own medication because of a lack of supervision, according to Gualtieri.
The sheriff said the company was placing kids in unlicensed facilities. In one instance, a child got access to a gun in the car that was unsecured. The sheriff also says an individual under an active investigation for felony drug trafficking and racketeering was put in charge of children.
The sheriff believes the circumstances constitute abuse and neglect so he initiated a criminal investigation. Mainly against the company and its senior management but it could expand. Regular employees are not being investigated.
"Nobody ever said that these kids were not challenges, but look at the conditions they're coming from. Look at their lives," he said. "You're talking about kids 12, 13, 14 years old, some younger, some older, but they're vulnerable and they need help and we as a community, as a society have an obligation to that and they've been failed."
There is no timetable for the investigation. The sheriff has been talking to the DCF secretary about the situation while the state works to find a new lead agency. The sheriff claims the full extent of the situation only came to light within the last week.
Watch the full press conference below:
An Eckerd Connects spokesperson sent a statement in regards to the investigation:
"Eckerd Connects takes extremely seriously the criminal investigation announced today by the Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office. Eckerd will provide its full cooperation to the sheriff’s office in its investigation. Eckerd Connects’ mission is to support the health and wellbeing of children and families in need in the Tampa Bay area, and we will not tolerate any acts of neglect or abuse by any of our staff or subcontracted agencies.”
It's a situation that child welfare advocates in the state say they're just grateful is being publicly acknowledged.
"It made me sad to think that children getting injured to bring this to the public attention," said Robin Rosenberg, the Deputy Director of Florida's Children First.
So what happens next?
Rosenberg says there will be a transition period as the criminal investigation continues and the state works to find a replacement.
"Things will get worse before they get better but the day-to-day work will continue with the providers that are doing the work," she said.
She also says this incident should motivate the community to join organizations that can provide some oversight into the foster care system.
But above all else, she says we should also be working together to keep as many children as possible out of the system altogether.
"If you see a family that is struggling, help them. Foster care as this has shown doesn't always mean better for children," said Rosenberg.
And though Eckerd Connects is currently under the microscope, Rosenberg adds that the Florida Department of Children and Families could also end up in the hot seat.
"It's, I think, very fair to question the department about what they were doing with oversight and why did they let it get to this point when they knew the problems had been in existence for quite some time," she said