This article represents the opinion of the Tampa Bay Times Editorial Board.
The Florida Department of Children and Families is expected to select a new provider overnight to manage foster care services in Pinellas and Pasco counties. The state faces a deadline, which fuels a sense of urgency. But this decision is rushed and important considerations are marginalized or ignored. The state needs to slow down this process, open it up, and answer a few simple questions about how a new supplier would be an improvement.
The state announced on November 1 that it would not renew Eckerd Connects’ contract after receiving information from Pinellas Sheriff Bob Gualtieri that one child was injured and another overdosed during their stay. overnight in an unauthorized agency office. The nonprofit Clearwater has come under fire for a handful of high-profile deaths of children under its watch and has struggled to find long-term placements for teens.
Last week, the ministry heard presentations from three bidders hoping to succeed Eckerd Connects. The agency’s contract was due to expire on December 31, leaving little time for the state to make a transition. But the emergency bidding process raises questions of its own and runs the risk of key issues being lost in haste.
Child welfare advocates are rightly concerned that the state will award a long-term contract without adequately verifying bidders and soliciting public input. To that end, the department sent exactly the wrong message by speeding up this selection process under a veil of secrecy. DCF did not disclose the names of the bidders, which the Tampa Bay weather requested under the Florida Public Records Act. The Times independently verified the three agencies that made presentations last week, and none are local. Only one bidder has close geographic ties to the Tampa Bay area, given its operation in Hernando County.
The State must slow down urgent work, open up to the strengths and weaknesses of the candidates and determine the significant role that this community will have in the management of its host population. Several immediate questions come to mind:
What new strategy will the state and the new supplier bring to the table? Is it a question of resources, competence of the provider or both? Will the state increase its financial support for reception services here?
Is there something unique about Tampa Bay that explains its continuing problems with foster families? What strategies will the supplier pursue to increase the availability of foster homes and improve safety?
Will the new supplier create a council of community leaders in the area? Any outside organization needs a sounding board, and the residents here have a say in the care of the host population. What guarantee is there that local voices will be heard?
Should the State rethink its policy of decentralizing reception services? After two decades of privatization, serious gaps remain, both in service delivery and in the accountability of providers. Are there too many moving parts?
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Everyone knows the clock is ticking. But the goal here is not simply to find a replacement, but to determine where and how Eckerd Connects failed, and to draw clearer lines of accountability for private and public providers. It’s a conversation for the whole community, which has a huge stake in protecting their children, one of the most essential functions of government at all levels.
Editorials are the corporate voice of the Tampa Bay Times. Members of the Editorial Board are Editorial Board Editor Graham Brink, Sherri Day, Sebastian Dortch, John Hill, Jim Verhulst and Chief Executive Officer Paul Tash. To follow @TBTimes_Opinion on Twitter for more opinion news.