Sheriff says unsafe conditions led to investigation of Eckerd Connects

Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri tells the media Nov. 4 about a criminal investigation his agency is conducting on Eckerd Connects Community Alternatives in Largo.

LARGO — Deplorable conditions, worse than those from which they were removed, was the impetus behind an investigation into an agency charged with making sure Pinellas County’s children are safe.

Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri held a press conference Nov. 4 at the sheriff’s administration building in Largo to announce he was beginning a criminal investigation against Eckerd Connects Community Alternatives, 8550 Ulmerton Road in Largo, and its senior management.

Gualtieri started his remarks by explaining that state Department of Children and Families is responsible for the safety and welfare of children statewide. In seven counties, including Pinellas, it is the sheriff’s job to investigate reports of abuse, which the sheriff’s office and its 140 employees have done since 1999.

When a report of abuse, abandonment or neglect comes in, an investigation is initiated and a decision is ultimately made as to whether or not to leave the child in the home with a safety plan or to remove the child.

Gualtieri said after his agency does its investigation, if abuse is found, the case becomes the responsibility of the Community Based Care provider lead agency, otherwise known as the CBC. The CBC in Pinellas County is Eckerd Connects.

Eckerd Connects is then responsible for the case management and placing the child with another family member or in foster care.

“Eckerd Connects has been substandard in many cases and is ineffective and that has caused the backlash on our child protective investigative efforts,” Gualtieri said, adding that the sheriff’s office had been working the Eckerd Connects for some time to try to improve the situation.

However, a week before the press conference, the sheriff’s office received some information that Gualtieri said had to be acted upon. He said the agency learned that as many as 60 or 70 children that had been removed from their homes had been living in Eckerd Connects’ administrative offices. He explained that these children were on “night-to-night status,” meaning they had no permanent place to sleep at night so they moved them to different places including the office.

He said according to the best information, as many as six children a night were sleeping at the Ulmerton Road location. He said they slept on cots or under desks in dirty clothes with no toiletries or towels and had no access to hot meals.

Gualtieri said Largo police had responded to the offices about 30 times in the last month due to children being disruptive and causing problems or running away. Conditions are “frankly disgusting and deplorable,” he said.

“Conditions are as bad as or worse than the conditions from which they were removed,” Gualtieri said.

He said children had received physical injuries and some had taken drugs and had to be transported to the hospital by ambulance.

He told a story about three teens who got into trouble on Oct. 28 when they left the building and used a ladder to try to climb onto the roof. One of the children fell and cut his stomach on a piece of metal that was sticking out of the ladder. The other children flagged down a police officer and the child was transported to a local hospital.

The next day, children got into a conference room where medications were stored, the sheriff said. One took drugs that didn’t belong to him and another took his own medications but too much. Both had to be transported to the hospital.

Gualtieri also told of instances where children were being transported to spend the night in unlicensed facilities by people who had not been vetted. In one case, an employee had a gun in the car and in the second the employee turned out to have charges of drug trafficking.

Gualtieri said the investigation wasn’t about targeting what he called “line workers” or the “line people” but was instead was aimed that the people who made the decisions and accepted the “10s of millions of dollars” the state paid Eckerd for its services.

When asked about Eckerd Connects’ claims that it didn’t receive enough funding to do the job, Gualtieri said it wasn’t about the money, it was about “doing the right thing.” He said it was a challenge to do the investigative work DCF contracts with the sheriff’s office to do for the money it receives, but it has to be done.

“You don’t whine about it, you fix it,” he said. “You don’t expose kids to danger.”

Gualtieri said the sheriff’s office is working with DCF while it transitions to a new CBC. The contract with Eckerd Connects expires Dec. 31. The sheriff’s office also is helping DCF make sure the children currently under the care of Eckerd Care are safe. He said 30 detectives worked with DCF on Nov. 3 to check the welfare of 93 children.

“DCF has taken an active role to keep kids safe,” Gualtieri said. “It’s important for people to know this has been going on to the extent it has been going on.”

Suzette Porter is TBN’s Pinellas County editor. She can be reached at sporter@tbnweekly.com.