‘How did that happen?’ Kansas picks embattled Florida nonprofit to help neglected kids

If the problems sound familiar, it’s because Kansas’ child welfare system has been dealing with them for over a year.

Foster children sleeping in offices, roaming unsupervised while skipping school. Youth staying in different homes night after night. Kids either in foster care or known to social workers dying of abuse and neglect.

Those are the same problems that have plagued a Florida nonprofit — an organization Kansas recently awarded a four-year grant to offer family preservation services in the Sunflower State.

“How did that happen? Who awarded those grants?” asked Rep. Jarrod Ousley, D-Merriam, when he learned of the history of the Florida nonprofit. “As a state, we’re going to hire a company with the exact same headlines we’re trying to get away from? I thought we were trying to be better?”

Eckerd Connects, which administers foster care in the Tampa Bay area, will provide family preservation services in three of Kansas’ four regions starting next year — all but the immediate Kansas City area. The secretary of Kansas’ Department for Children and Families released that news earlier this month.

But what Secretary Gina Meier-Hummel didn’t say — and what lawmakers and advocates apparently didn’t know — is that Eckerd has been under intense scrutiny in Florida for what many there view as a broken foster care system under the nonprofit’s watch.

According to media reports in Tampa, the state warned Eckerd Connects in June that if it didn’t come up with a corrective plan, and adhere to it, the agency could lose its $77 million annual contract.

Lori Ross, a long-time child advocate in Kansas and Missouri, said it’s “deeply disturbing” that work involving the safety and care of Kansas kids has been put in the hands of an agency with a “known, prevalent history of inadequate care for children.”

“I don’t know if someone didn’t do their due diligence or if there’s an appeal of that agency that the rest of us don’t understand,” Ross said. “I mean, a Google search is all that you needed to do.”

In an email to The Star Friday afternoon, a DCF spokeswoman said Meier-Hummel and the agency “are aware of the challenges Eckerd Connects is facing with their foster care contract in Florida.”

DCF said earlier this month it awarded the new child welfare grants “following an extensive and robust review process.”

On Friday, the Kansas department pointed out that the out-of-state agency wasn’t awarded the grant for foster care, but for family preservation. And, DCF said, the Florida nonprofit already provides some services in Kansas with “compassion and professionalism.”

“Eckerd Connects Family Preservation award will serve children in the home, preventing the need for foster care placement,” DCF spokeswoman Taylor Forrest-Crowell said in the email. “Comparing their foster care services in Florida with their family preservation services in Kansas is not an equal or fair comparison because they will be serving Kansas children and families in a completely different way.”

The Florida nonprofit also stressed in an email late Friday that it was not given a grant to provide foster care services in Kansas.

“Our organization was awarded a Family Preservation grant and our team will work diligently with children and families to keep them from ever entering the foster care system,” Eckerd said.

Based in Clearwater, Fla., Eckerd Connects was founded in 1968 by late philanthropists Jack and Ruth Eckerd, known for starting the now-defunct pharmacy chain in the 1950s. The company has expanded over the years and its programs now include foster care, adoption, workforce development, aid for the homeless and transitional services for troubled youth.

Eckerd noted that it already provides some services in Kansas through a partnership with the state Department of Corrections. And, the nonprofit said, states across the country are facing similar challenges with placing foster care children and some others also have had kids sleep in offices.

Yet some lawmakers say DCF and Eckerd are missing the point.

Sen. Jim Ward, D-Wichita, said giving a grant to a Florida company with a troubling track record on foster care “makes me nervous.”

“Do the ultra-conservatives have a master list of incompetent agencies to hire?” he said. “Because they just seem to keep finding them.”

Ward said the DCF argument that the Kansas contract isn’t a concern because it’s for family preservation services and not foster care isn’t valid.

“That’s a distinction without a difference,” he said. “They have a different title, but the basic impact is you’re interacting with children under enormous crisis and stress. And so far, you don’t have a good track record, whatever you call it.”

Sen. Anthony Hensley, D-Topeka, said the Eckerd Connects grant raises serious concerns.

“I think it’s a very unwise and imprudent action to take as they’re going out the door, here in the last months of the previous administration, to enter into this grant to put that company in charge,” he said. “I think it’s something that the Kansas Legislature and the incoming administration need to take a look at and see, if possible, to try to get out of this contract.”

DCF announced grant recipients on Nov. 1, marking a substantial change from its previous system of awarding contracts. Eckerd will provide family preservation services in the state’s east, west and Wichita regions, while Cornerstones of Care will handle the Kansas City region, DCF said.

The state budget for family preservation services is about $10 million, but DCF would not say Friday how much of that would go to Eckerd.

When announcing the changes, DCF said it was “putting families and children first” and emphasizing accountability and oversight.

Gov. Jeff Colyer praised the new system at the time, saying it “will serve as the foundation for enacting true reform in Kansas child welfare.”

But the headlines from Florida have many questioning that statement.

“Eckerd Connects admits Hillsborough foster kids slept in Wawa parking lot 7 times last fall,” says a February headline on Tampa’s News Channel 8.

From a Tampa Bay Times story this past June: “State threatens to fire Eckerd Connects if Hillsborough foster care failings not addressed.”

And the Times wrote in late August: “Foster Care Children still sleep in offices, but Eckerd Connects says foster care fix is working.”

Among the revelations in the stories: foster care teens dumped into the community without food or money when they’d been suspended from school or were skipping class. In two cases, sheriff’s investigators suspected that teen foster girls were involved in prostitution while on unsupervised release.

Investigators also reported that numerous children had no idea where they would sleep from night to night, with one girl telling them that she “doesn’t know where she’s going to eat, doesn’t know if she’s going to have clean clothes to wear, or when she’ll be able to wash her clothes or when she’ll be able to take another shower.”

The reports from Florida are often mirror images of many written in Kansas and why the state has been under pressure to fix the child welfare system.

Local advocates and two national children’s rights group filed a class action lawsuit on Friday in the name of 10 children in state care. The suit alleges that the state of Kansas is harming foster children by failing to provide adequate placement and crucial mental health treatment.

Lori Burns-Bucklew, a Kansas City accredited child welfare law specialist, is one of the attorneys involved in the suit. She said learning about Eckerd’s performance record in Florida was alarming.

“I thought, how could they go out and search the nation and find someone creating the same unbelievable situations there as I’m hearing about here,” Burns-Bucklew said. And when it comes to Family Preservation, the service is so important, she said: “It’s our hope. It’s the opportunity to try to stop this before it happens.”

In picking the grant recipients, Meier-Hummel said earlier this month, two internal DCF teams “analyzed and blind-scored each bid submission off-site for three days at the end of August.”

The agency said it then entered into negotiations with bidders in September.

Transitions from the current services will start in January, with the new providers scheduled to begin serving Kansas children and families on July 1, according to DCF.

Leaders in Topeka remain hopeful that the agency will continue to change for the better. Still, however, they wonder how a Florida company under intense scrutiny could be chosen to help fix the troubled Kansas system.

“Oh, brother,” said House Majority Leader Don Hineman, R-Dighton. “I’m disappointed to hear that. Full vetting and due diligence should be done before any private contractor is awarded a grant. I know that can be time-consuming and inefficient, but it’s of paramount importance, in my opinion.”

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