Kansas picks em­bat­tled Fla. non­profit to aid ne­glected kids

The Wichita Eagle (Sunday) - - News - BY LAURA BAUER AND JUDY L. THOMAS

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 MeierHum­mel 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 blind­scored 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 time­con­sum­ing and in­ef­fi­cient, but it’s of para­mount im­por­tance, in my opin­ion.”

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