A facility that the state paid $80 million to provide safe foster homes for children is under a criminal investigation after children were found living in “disgusting and deplorable" conditions, a Florida sheriff said.
Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri said he's investigating Eckerd Connects after children were found to be sleeping 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 removed,” Gualtieri said.
He's also concerned about a series of recent accidents and incidents that raise questions about the children's care, the Tampa Bay Times reported.
Last week, a child fell off a ladder and cut open his stomach while trying to climb onto the roof, Gualtieri said.
He provided other examples: A child was hospitalized after overdosing on another child's medication; a worker of an unlicensed care facility was driving a 14-year-old child when a gun fell onto the vehicle's floorboard.
Dozens of children have been cycled through unlicensed facilities, including one whose director was being investigated for conspiring to distribute hydrocodone, Gualtieri said.
The Clearwater-based nonprofit has run foster care in Pinellas and Pasco counties since 2008.
The sheriff said during a news conference on Thursday that he's launching two separate investigations: One focused on the protection of children under the agency's care; the other a criminal investigation into the nonprofit and its high-level employees.
The sheriff said case managers and other lower level employees are “between a rock and a hard place" and won't be charged with wrongdoing.
“It’s not fair to hold these low-level people who are making a few bucks an hour (accountable) who are trying to do the best they can,” he said.
The Florida Department of Children and Families announced Monday that it won't renew the agency's annual contract to provide child welfare services.
Eckerd released a statement Thursday promising full cooperation with the probes as it cares for children under its current contract.
“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,” the statement said.
The agency had previously blamed care issues on inadequate state funding. The sheriff said Thursday that funding is no excuse.
”We all got money problems,” he said, “but we make it happen.”