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How should Florida lawmakers tackle child welfare in legislative session?

Former DCF employees said the investigation into Eckerd is not an isolated incident. Rather, the issues are systemic.

FLORIDA, USA — Uncertainty lies ahead for kids in our child welfare and foster care system across Tampa Bay.

Eckerd Connects is parting ways as the lead agency and an investigation into allegations of child abuse and neglect is underway by the Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office.

Some state lawmakers and the Department of Children and Families have stated Eckerd is to blame. But, former DCF employees, including its past leader, said it's more complicated.

Former DCF Secretary Mike Carroll said the problems we're seeing with Eckerd are systemic, not just an isolated incident.

"I'm all for holding folks accountable... but at the end of the day, if we're going to move forward, let's look at the systemic issues," Carroll said.

He now serves as Lutheran Services Florida's executive vice president of programs.

Carroll said several factors contribute to issues within the child welfare system. For instance, underfunding and understaffing of case managers and workers contribute to challenges the system is facing, he said.

Carroll also said the problems we're seeing often go back from the start. Lack of income, stable housing, or education for instance is what can to children in the system in the first place.

He's urging the legislature to provide more funding for child welfare at the very least. By doing so, children in the system can have more access to care like mental health so their chances of staying in the system are reduced.

"Child welfare doesn't fix anybody. What it does is provide families opportunities and access to tools." Carroll said. “Too many kids are coming into our system and too many kids our staying in our system too long.”

But without the proper funding, programs and resources in place, that cannot happen, Carroll added.

Those lack of resources include placements or services to support children’s emotional and behavioral needs.

“Unfortunately, what happened at Eckerd was one of the worst-kept secrets here in Pinellas County,” State Rep. Michele Rayner-Goolsby (D-District 70) said.

Rayner-Goolsby said she’s hopeful the latest investigation will push more lawmakers to invest in child welfare. Rayner-Goolsby is advocating for legislation or a task force dedicated to evaluate the problems that led up to Eckerd investigation.

“We need to look at where this failure was and it was systemic failure,” Rayner-Goolsby said. “What happened and how can we prevent this going forward?”  

Rayner-Goolsby also said there should be oversight at the state level to ensure proper hiring practices and reasonable workload for case managers.

“On Jan. 1, everything that Eckerd struggled with, the next provider is also going to begin day one struggling with,” Carroll said. “As a community, we need to come together around those issues and have a real impact.”