PINELLAS COUNTY, Fla. — The Department of Children and Families (DCF) recently announced that Florida Support Services (FSS) will take over for Eckerd Connects as the new community-based care lead agency.
Eckerd Connects has been serving as the agency for child welfare in Pinellas and Pasco counties up until a recent investigation into the organization by the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office. According to Sheriff Bob Gualtieri, children were hurt under the care of Eckerd Connects.
A spokesman for FSS tells 10 Tampa Bay, the contract DCF has with Eckerd Connects will end Dec. 31 and FSS will replace the agency starting January 1, 2022.
Foster parents in Pinellas County have told 10 Tampa Bay they have concerns with the child welfare system and don't believe they are being well informed with the current transition.
Joshua Nwajei is a foster parent in Pinellas County and currently has five foster children in his home. Nwajei said when it was announced FSS would take over for Eckerd Connects, he wasn't notified.
“The move for DCF just to announce a new agency without telling us, it’s a slap in our faces and we’re not happy about it," Nwajei stated.
Foster parents have come together and expressed concerns with the child welfare system in Pinellas and Pasco counties. Parents explained, when children are in their care, the state and local agencies do little to monitor them.
“It gets me choked up when I think about it because I have a parent now that cries to me everyday. She said, 'If it wasn’t for you finding me on Facebook, I wouldn’t know where my child is,'" Nwajei expressed.
Agencies that monitor the child welfare system throughout Florida, like Florida Children's First, also expressed they felt the transition from Eckerd Connects to FSS happened too soon.
"Our organization was very concerned at the speed at which this took place. We were hoping there would be much greater opportunity for public input and consideration of the candidates," the deputy director for Florida Children's First, Robin Rosenberg, stated.
Rosenberg explained there was little chance for anyone in the public to ask questions.
"The whole concept is premised on community input," Rosenberg explained.
"And, in this case, the vendors were never publicly disclosed prior to the selection. A select number of people were invited with just three hours notice to hear presentations from the potential vendors, but no one had the time to sit down and do a comparison and ask the tough questions."
10 Tampa Bay took Rosenberg's tough questions straight to FSS to see how they will take care of children in Pinellas and Pasco counties.
Here are our questions and answers from an FSS spokesperson:
What are your agency’s priorities?
"Minimizing the number of children removed from their homes and taken into the child welfare system is among our top priorities. The service model we have proven successful in Northeast Florida is based on family preservation and timely permanency. That’s what Family Support Services is all about. Through multiple innovative programs, we work every day to bolster families that are struggling and to keep children in homes with their birth parents whenever possible," FSS said.
What will the funding go toward?
"Keeping our focus on family preservation and reunification means hard work on the frontend of the system, working with families that are struggling before removing a child becomes our only option. FSS believes we must dedicate resources to prevention and family preservation initiatives, helping determine when and where we can safely keep children at home," FSS said.
Will you all reduce the number of children who are unnecessarily placed in group homes?
"We do everything possible to keep a child with their family — and when foster care must happen, we do whatever we can to ensure it’s a temporary solution that leads to family reunification when that is in the best interest of the child," FSS said.
Will you all give greater support to foster families to keep children safe at home?
"Prevention efforts allow FSS to provide support to families in myriad challenging situations, leading to long-term positive solutions and better outcomes for children. Families receive assistance from FSS through a series of prevention programs that help keep children at home and out of foster care. We offer and oversee these free services that help families get back on track," FSS said.
How will you all help parents getting their children back?
"The key to success for any community based care agency is the strength of the community’s partners. FSS has been warmly welcomed by many of the community partners that share in the work of keeping children safe in Pasco and Pinellas counties. Building and strengthening these partnerships will be another top priority of ours moving forward, as it will take all of us to drive successful outcomes for the children and families of Circuit 6," FSS said.
DCF Secretary Shevaun Harris stated, “This is our opportunity to rebuild the system of care in these counties that truly addresses the needs of children and families it serves by engaging the community to leverage all available resources. We looked for a qualified lead agency who knew how to activate the community and reach partners, and we know that FSS will work diligently to carry this out in Circuit 6.”
FSS President and CEO Jenn Petion also said the organization's previous experience prepared them for this transition. She said FSS is eager to meet with foster parents and ensure their needs are met as they transition.
10 Tampa Bay reached out to Eckerd Connects for a comment regarding the transition. We asked Ron Bartlett, who is a spokesman for Eckerd Connects, how they will assist FSS with this transition.
Bartlett sent us this statement:
"Eckerd Connects is committed to working closely with the Florida Department of Children and Families and with Family Support Services to assure a smooth transition of child welfare services in Pinellas-Pasco counties. Our fundamental mission is to help improve the health and wellbeing of children and families in need, and that will continue throughout this transition.”