LEE COUNTY, Fla. — A Fort Myers agency was selected by the Florida Department of Children and Families to help kids in another county. This is after DCF said that Eckerd Connects in Clearwater was deemed unsafe for children in their care.
Now, the Children's Network in Southwest Florida was awarded a $90 million contract from the state.
"The conditions in which these children have been living in Eckerd’s offices, frankly, is disgusting," said Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gulatieri.
Back in November, DCF sent a letter to the agency canceling the contract because: "Eckerd’s recent actions and inactions have jeopardized the health, safety, and welfare of dependent children."
Since then, the Children's Network of Southwest Florida in Lee County was picked to take over the contract and provide services for children and families in the foster care system.
The CEO of Children's Network in Southwest Florida, Nadereh Salim, said she believes her agency was chosen because of its performance in the community for the past 20 years.
"We took the opportunity to go up and showcase and highlight some of the initiatives and programming that we have done here in our community," Salim said.
The letter from DCF also mentioned that Eckerd placed children in unlicensed settings for long periods of time and did not find children stable homes.
The chair of Eckerd Connects responded that the agency worked hard to get the legislature to have more money for the program - but his agency just wasn't capable of providing adequate services given the inadequate funding. That is why Eckerd Connects did not seek renewal.
Salim said one key factor to Children's Network of Southwest Florida is decreasing the number of children being removed from the home.
"When we started, we had about 2,500 children in our care.," Salim said. "Over the course of years, we put a lot of emphasis on family preservation, prevention, and diversion.”
The area Eckerd once served has around 3,000 children in the foster care system - which is the third-largest in the state. Salim knows it's a challenge, but says she believes her agency is ready to make a change for the better by attacking the system from two ends.
"We want to put some services in the home to stabilize the family. That could be addressing their substance abuse issues,” Salim said. "Permanency - kids being adopted, kids being unified with their families and leaving the foster care system.”