Eckerd Connects foster care provider investigated after children left unattended overnight at offices

There is now a criminal investigation to the agency that runs the foster care systems for Pinellas, Pasco, and Hillsborough counties.

Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri said when the agency – Eckerd Connects – couldn't place kids into foster homes, it would make the children stay in what he called "deplorable" conditions – forced to sleep in office buildings, unsupervised, without proper facilities or food, and in dirty clothes.

One child overdosed while staying at the Eckerd building, the sheriff said, and another fell from the roof onto a metal shard, later needing to be hospitalized.

"The conditions in which these children have been living in Eckerd’s facilities, frankly, are disgusting and deplorable," the sheriff said in a press conference Thursday, where he announced an investigation into the agency’s senior management.

Earlier this week, Florida’s Department of Children and Families said it will no longer partner with Eckerd Connects to provide foster care and casework services for the three Bay Area counties.

The sheriff said, on average, Eckerd Connects is unable to place six children per night into foster homes. He said those children are forced to live inside administrative offices, where there’s little or no supervision.

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"The conditions are as bad or as worse than when we investigated the conditions inside the children’s homes," Gualtieri said.

The chair of Eckerd’s board told FOX 13 News Thursday that caseworkers have been forced to do what they can with the resources available and the problems stem from drastic underfunding from the state. 

Eckerd Connects board chair Ray Ferrara said, for example, Hillsborough County serves nearly 1,500 children more than Miami-Dade County, but receives $20-million less in state funding.

"Without the proper funding, we have not been able to do the kind of job and provide the kind of services," Ferrara said. 

 The sheriff said that’s no excuse. 

"You still do your job, and you don’t expose kids to danger," he said. "Kids having access to guns. Kids having their guts split open. Kids overdosing on drugs. That’s not about money, that’s about failing."

The sheriff said the investigation started this week and they didn’t know the extent of the issues before now. He wants to know how things got so bad.

Late Thursday, Eckerd also issued a written statement: "Eckerd Connects takes extremely seriously the criminal investigation announced today by the Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office. Eckerd will provide its full cooperation to the sheriff’s office in its investigation. Eckerd Connects’ mission is to support the health and wellbeing of children and families in need in the Tampa Bay area, and we will not tolerate any acts of neglect or abuse by any of our staff or subcontracted agencies."