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State will contract with a Fort Myers nonprofit to take over foster care in Hillsborough

 The Children's Network of Southwest Florida will expand its services to Hillsborough and replace current contractor Eckerd Connects at the end of June.
The Children's Network of Southwest Florida will expand its services to Hillsborough and replace current contractor Eckerd Connects at the end of June.

The Children's Network of Southwest Florida will expand services to Hillsborough and replace Eckerd Connects. It's the second time in recent months that the state chose an agency from outside the Tampa Bay area to run child welfare in the region.

The state is planning to give a foster care contract in Hillsborough County to a Fort Myers-based nonprofit.

The Department of Children and Families posted an intent to award notice online this week naming Children's Network of Southwest Florida as the successor to current lead agency Eckerd Connects after its contract ends at the end of June.

Children's Network has served Charlotte, Collier, Glades, Henry and Lee counties for 19 years.

The move is another example of the state choosing an agency from outside the Tampa Bay area to run foster care in the region.

Eckerd was also the lead foster care agency in Pinellas and Pasco counties until the end of last year. DCF chose not to renew its contract with Eckerd and the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office launched a criminal investigation into the agency, claiming it was housing kids in poor conditions.

The state selected Jacksonville-based agency Family Support Services of North Florida to take control of child welfare in Pasco and Pinellas in January.

Eckerd had announced it would not seek renewal of its Hillsborough contract, where the agency has also struggled. Recently there's been a shortage of case managers.

Children's Network of Southwest Florida CEO Nadereh Salim said one of her top priorities is to retain qualified Eckerd staff and find more workers.

"Because we cannot afford to have our front-line staff leave," Salim said. "They're the backbone of what we do every day in terms of ensuring that our children are safe."

Karen Bonsignori, spokesperson with the Tallahassee nonprofit American Children's Campaign, said Children's Network has a strong track record.

She said it has a "history of stable leadership" and its "performance metrics are more consistent than others" when it comes to getting kids out of their foster care system.

But she said her group is concerned the state went with another outsider.

"Local communities know best what will serve their community," Bonsignori said.

When the state first started privatizing foster care in the late 1990s, the idea, Bonsignori said, was that community-based care agencies, or CBCs, would do a better job catering to the needs of area residents as opposed to having a one-size-fits-all model run out of Tallahassee.

"We’re concerned this contract award continues, and some may even say encourages, a pattern of existing community-based care agencies to morph into mega-CBC conglomerates," Bonsignori said.

Salim said Children's Network already has ties to the Tampa Bay area as a subsidiary of Camelot Community Care in Clearwater and a fellow member of DCF's SunCoast region.

She said they plan to build more local connections in the coming months.

"My team plans to come up to Tampa regularly during the transition to learn as much as we can and connect with the community," said Salim, who added that she got her start in social services in Tampa.

Salim said Children's Network will also use data to identify what issues require immediate attention in Hillsborough and build management infrastructure in the county.

"It will have its own dedicated team, it's not me straddling two communities," Salim said. "A team from that community dedicated to serving that community."

Stephanie Colombini joined WUSF Public Media in December 2016 as Producer of Florida Matters, WUSF’s public affairs show. She’s also a reporter for WUSF’s Health News Florida project.