It has been a rough and uncertain week for at-risk youth in Pinellas County. But the county’s legislative delegation promised Tuesday issues will be addressed.
First, the Department of Children and Families fired Eckerd Connects last week. It’s a private organization contracted through the state to offer foster and child care services in Pinellas and Pasco counties.
DCF notified Eckerd it will not renew its contract at the end of the year.
Eckerd responded by saying it was quitting and would not seek a contract renewal. It also said it’s pulling out of pending contract negotiations in Hillsborough County. Eckerd accused the state of underfunding the agency for years despite repeated asks for more money.
But just weeks before the separation, state investigators accused Eckerd Connects’ leader of splitting his contract in two, pushing his salary over the state-mandated limit.
Rep. Chris Latvala spoke to Florida Politics after Tuesday’s meeting of the Pinellas County Legislative Delegation.
“Overall, child welfare needs more resources,” the Clearwater Republican said. “But that doesn’t excuse what happened to these kids. Their community-based care person that heads that in our area was making well more than the state allowed. When it comes to their executive salaries, they’re certainly not hurting for money.”
Latvala said no appropriations bills have been filed so far. But he said child protection has been close to him during his time in the legislature, especially following the death of 2-year-old Jordan Belliveau in 2018. The young child died of head trauma caused by his mother. Warning signs had been missed by child welfare services. Latvala filed legislation in response that reduced case managers’ workloads, streamlined communication between agencies and increased training for parents, caseworkers, and law enforcement.
But the Eckerd Connects issues have gone beyond the monetary melee. Issues with Eckerd Connects have led to a criminal investigation from Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gauliteri.
Last week, Gualitieri said children in Eckerd’s care were in “disgusting and deplorable conditions,” often worse than those from which they were removed. Some children have gotten possession of firearms and been hospitalized with injuries.
Rep. Michele Rayner, a Democrat who represents parts of Pinellas, Pasco and Hillsborough counties, said these problems have existed for years.
“This is kind of the worst kept secret in Pinellas County,” she said.
Rayner said there’s no reason legislators shouldn’t prioritize protecting vulnerable children immediately. She’s hoping her role on the Health and Human Services Committee can help. She said it’s a “sounding alarm” for the whole state, not just Pinellas.
“We as a Legislature have got to make sure we put safeguards in to protect these children and that the organizations we’re going to entrust these children to are going to have proper oversight and have the bandwidth to be able to make sure that our most vulnerable, the most precious gifts that we have, are protected,” Rayner said.
She said whether its through a task force or legislation, something tangible needs to emerge from the problem.
DCF has launched an emergency bidding process to replace Eckerd in Pasco and Pinellas counties by Jan. 21. The Hillsborough contract expires in June.
But Beth Houghton of the Juvenile Welfare Board of Pinellas County said child welfare in the county has been in crisis for sometime. She said she worries DCF will rely on other community organizations that already have full plates and little child welfare experience to step in. That, she said, will not do. Despite disputed high-dollar executive salaries, she said folks at the bottom are over-worked and underpaid or inexperienced.
“We need, and really DCF needs, to hold those organizations accountable, whoever they choose to do that work,” she said. “But we really need to change the trajectory in this circuit, get better people.”