Tampa area child welfare agency under criminal investigation
CLEARWATER, Fla. (AP) – A facility the state paid $ 80 million to provide safe foster homes for children is under criminal investigation after children were found living in conditions “Disgusting and deplorable,” said a Florida sheriff.
Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri said he was investigating Eckerd Connects after children slept on cots and under desks, some in dirty clothes and without access to toiletries, towels or hot meals.
“The conditions are as bad or worse than the living conditions from which the children were taken,” said Gualtieri.
He is also concerned about a string of recent accidents and incidents that raise questions about child custody, The Tampa Bay Times reported.
Last week, a child fell from a ladder and split his stomach open while trying to climb onto the roof, Gualtieri said.
He gave other examples: a child was hospitalized after an overdose of medication from another child; an employee of an unlicensed care facility was driving a 14-year-old child when a gun fell on the floor of the vehicle.
Dozens of children were taken to unauthorized facilities, including one whose director was under investigation for conspiring to distribute hydrocodone, Gualtieri said.
The Clearwater-based nonprofit has been managing host families in Pinellas and Pasco counties since 2008.
The sheriff said at a press conference Thursday that he was launching two separate investigations: one focused on the protection of children in the agency’s care; the other a criminal investigation into the association and its high-level employees.
The sheriff said case managers and other lower-level staff are “between a rock and a hard place” and will not be charged with wrongdoing.
“It’s not fair to hold these low-level people who are making a few dollars an hour (accountable) and trying to do their best,” he said.
The Florida Department of Children and Families announced Monday that it will not renew the agency’s annual contract to provide child protection services.
Eckerd released a statement on Thursday promising full cooperation with the probes as she cares for children under her current contract.
“The mission of Eckerd Connects is to support the health and well-being of children and families in need in the Tampa Bay area, and we will not tolerate any act of neglect or abuse on the part of our staff. or our subcontracting agencies, “the statement read.
The agency had previously blamed the care problems on inadequate public funding. The sheriff said Thursday that the funding is no excuse.
“We all have money problems,” he said, “but we’re getting there. “