DCF knew Eckerd was trouble, then a child fell off a roof — It got worse after that

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DCF Secretary Shevaun Harris told a House subcommittee how the foster agency lost its contract, and what the agency is doing to avoid a repeat.

By January 2020, the red flags surrounding Eckerd Connects’ performance as the lead foster care agency in Pinellas and Pasco counties had become too much to bear, according to Department of Children and Families (DCF) Secretary Shevaun Harris.

The organization, which had been under contract with the state in the 6th Judicial Circuit since 2008, was put on notice.

Then, in October, an unsupervised foster child who left to spend the night with three others in an Eckerd Connects office climbed to the building’s roof and fell. From there, things got worse.

“We didn’t feel like we got the response that you would think, so the department had to step in and intervene,” Harris told a House subcommittee Wednesday. “There were more than just four kids sleeping in offices.”

Harris said the child survived “by the grace of God.” She said members of her executive leadership team were able to get the children placements within a few days. That is something, she said, she would’ve expected Eckerd to have done on its own accord.

But instead, the four children were left in an office to spend the night with only one adult watching them. Harris said that was beyond insufficient, and the supervisor allowed three to slip away unnoticed and climb the roof.

She said a Pinellas County inspection of some of those offices was the final straw in ending Eckerd’s contract.

“The conditions of the offices were deplorable,” she said. “The office smelled of urine. There was graffiti on the walls. Kids’ belongings were on the floor. Some of their clothes and belongings were stuffed under desks. There were unsanitary living environments.”

Harris said DCF felt it had “more than passed a tipping point” and immediately notified Eckerd its contract wouldn’t be renewed.

For 13 years, Eckerd Connects was the lead agency in Pinellas, Pasco and Hillsborough counties coordinating foster care services with law enforcement and judicial partners under Florida’s community-based care (CBC) model. Under the CBC model, the state contracts with private organizations to coordinate all aspects of localized foster and family-care services.

Eckerd’s contracts for Pinellas and Pasco counties, along with its Hillsborough contract, were not renewed. Family Support Services (FSS) of North Florida has stepped in to handle those contracts with the creation of Family Support Services of Suncoast.

Harris met with the House Children Families and Seniors Subcommittee Wednesday to update on the transition from Eckerd to FSS and detail how the foster system in Tampa Bay failed so many children.

Recently, reports have emerged alleging the spread of child pornography, the proliferation of sexual activity among children as young as 12 in Eckerd facilities, and sexual abuse at the hands of foster parents.

Harris told legislators Eckerd was given an opportunity at the start of 2020 to improve. She said lead agency contracts are competitive, with a strict vetting process. She said the state doesn’t like to switch agencies on a whim as it can cause major disruptions, so Eckerd was given chances to fix what Harris called “systemic failures.”

The state uses 20 criteria to evaluate lead agencies. Harris said Eckerd was failing at 17, but most glaringly when it came to abuse cases per 100,000 bed days; group care utilization; children achieving permanency; shuffling placements; and size of caseloads. In all five areas, state data showed Eckerd was performing well under state standards. Eckerd was also criticized for using clever accounting to circumvent state law regarding salary caps. Eckerd has denied allegations it did anything unscrupulous with the contract of Chris Card, who previously oversaw Eckerd operations in Hillsborough, Pinellas and Pasco counties.

When DCF announced Eckerd wouldn’t be returning as a lead agency in November, Eckerd released its own statement saying it hadn’t planned to seek the renewal anyway. It blamed funding.

“Our focus in this region and throughout the State of Florida has always been on what is best for children and families,” Eckerd Board of Directors Chair V. Raymond Ferrara said in the letter. “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. We regret that it has come to this, but we simply cannot continue under the current circumstances.”

Records show from 2016 to 2021, state funding to Eckerd in Pinellas and Pasco increased from about $44.8 million to about $50.4 million in core funding. Eckerd received almost $40 million more in non-core funding from 2017 to 2021. In 2016, its operating budget was $68.3 million. By 2021 it was $90.6 million.

But Harris said the issues ran much deeper than funding.

In June 2020, DCF stepped in to to help Eckerd because of an influx in cases. The next month, the agency stepped in to help achieve more permanency for children and the state provided Eckerd with an additional $4.3 million in recurring funding.

Harris took the reins of DCF in February 2021 and said she began focusing on bringing the organization up to par. In March, the state provided Eckerd more support and in April, Harris met with Eckerd leadership to outline a plan of action.

When Card was replaced as CEO in August, Harris said DCF thought there was a better opportunity for some of the necessary changes to happen. Then came the October incident.

“I know we often hear about financing being a big issue and constraint but for me that was just poor judgment,” she said.

Child care advocates have accused the state of using Eckerd as a scapegoat for institutional failings, especially as the Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office investigates Eckerd for the “deplorable conditions” of environments its own deputies placed children into. Under Florida’s CBC statute, local law enforcement agencies are also tasked with being the investigative branch of foster service and determining whether or not a child should be removed.

“No matter who takes over, if they don’t deal with wrongful removals, it will be Eckerd all over again,” Richard Wexler, executive director of the National Coalition for Child Protection Reform, told Florida Politics in December. “It is infuriating when the Sheriff in Pinellas only points a finger at Eckerd and doesn’t stop to think he’s the one dropping all these children on Eckerd.”

But Harris said things have already improved. She said DCF began the transition process in November, handling most of the work for Eckerd. She said 43 adoptions were finalized in December. There was a 50% reduction in Sheriff’s Office removals from October to December, along with a 27.5% reduction in night-to-night placements by finding more long-term solutions for children.

But she also said her experience with the failure of Tampa Bay’s foster care system provides an opportunity for reflection and for DCF to improve its own accountability standards.

“One of the takeaways for us to really look at is, when is enough enough? How many chances are too many? That’s something we need to have a deeper conversation about, absolutely, because there were red flags prior,” she said. “It’s always important to look inward. I’ve had conversations with my leadership team. We’re looking at how we could have done things differently in terms of ramping up our monitoring. I think the strides made with the quality office is a huge first step. But there’s so much more that we can be doing and we are readying ourselves to do so now and in the future.”

Daniel Figueroa IV

Bronx, NY —> St. Pete, Fla. Just your friendly, neighborhood journo junkie with a penchant for motorcycles and Star Wars. Daniel has spent the last decade covering Tampa Bay and Florida for the Ledger of Lakeland, Tampa Bay Times, and WMNF. You can reach Daniel Figueroa IV at [email protected]


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