PINELLAS COUNTY, Fla. — The Pinellas County Sheriff's Office announced a criminal investigation into allegations of child abuse and neglect that they say kids under the care of Eckerd Connects Community Alternatives suffered.
According to the sheriff's office, Eckerd has about 60 to 70 kids who are considered to be under a night-to-night status, meaning the kids don't have a regular placement and are moved around on a nightly basis.
Of those kids, the sheriff's office says it learned about six a night have been sleeping on cots and under desks at Eckerd's administrative office in Largo without clean clothes, toiletries, hot meals or clean shower facilities.
Earlier this week, the Florida Department of Children and Families (DCF) announced Eckerd Connects will stop providing child welfare services in the Bay area within the next year. The contracts with Hillsborough, Pinellas and Pasco counties are being terminated when they expire.
In a statement to 10 Tampa Bay, DCF said:
"Eckerd’s recent actions and inactions have jeopardized the health, safety and welfare of the dependent children under their care, 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, call into question their ability to fulfill their contractual obligations."
State Rep. Chris Latvala believes Eckerd is solely to blame
"The blame falls with Eckerd Connects, not with DCF," said the Republican representative from Pinellas County.
Attorney Andrew Chiang thinks the problems are bigger than Eckerd Connects. Chiang is a private attorney out of Sarasota but used to work for many years at DCF.
Chiang said the entire system is complex and convoluted.
"Even myself as an attorney ad litem, I get confused as to who the case manager is with the kid I'm representing," said Chiang.
HOW IT WORKS
After a child abuse case gets called in, The Florida Department of Children and Families conducts an investigation, except in a handful of counties.
In the 1990s, the legislature granted full authority to a handful of sheriff's offices including Pinellas, Pasco, and Manatee. Hillsborough was added years later. Regardless of which agency investigates, DCF or a sheriff's office, Florida law mandates the use of a "community-based care agency" to be boots on the ground.
In Pinellas, Pasco, and Hillsborough counties, that agency is Eckerd Connects. Eckerd uses several other subcontractors for things like foster care, placement, counseling, social work, etc.
That's how one case can get passed from agency to agency all while children could be suffering.