Tuesday, November 9, 2021

A Florida county sheriff says a private agency warehoused children in conditions so horrible he’s launching a criminal investigation. But guess who took away the kids in the first place.

Hint: It’s the county that tears apart families at one of the highest rates in the state, and yet has one of the worst records in the state on a key measure of child safety.


Bob Gualtieri, the sheriff of Pinellas County, Florida (metropolitan St. Petersburg) is really upset.  It seems he’s noticed something we’ve been pointing out on our Florida blog for years:  Eckerd Connects, the longtime “lead agency” responsible for what happens to foster children after they’re torn from their homes in Pinellas and neighboring Pasco and Hillsborough Counties, has been doing a terrible job. (Not for much longer, though.  Either the state Department of Children and Families fired Eckerd or Eckerd quit, depending on who is telling the story.) 

But, back to the sheriff, who says Eckerd did such a lousy job that he's launching a criminal investigation: 

“The conditions in which these children have been living at Eckerd’s offices, frankly, is disgusting and deplorable," Gualtieri said. And he’s not about to accept any excuses either!  “You don’t whine about it,” he says. “You fix it and if you can’t do it you go to the state and you say, ‘hey look, this isn’t working and here’s why,’ … But you still do your job, and you don’t expose kids to danger while you’re trying to fix it. You figure out a way to make it happen." 

You tell ‘em, Sheriff! But there’s just one problem.  Bad as Eckerd is – and yes, they are awful, and yes there’s no excuse for it – the single biggest source of the problem in Pinellas County is – the office of the Pinellas County Sheriff.  Gualtieri runs what may be the most extreme, most fanatical family destruction agency in Florida.

It’s Sheriff Gualtieri and his deputies who are, in effect, dumping all those Pinellas County children onto Eckerd’s doorstep in the first place.  No, it’s not because they want to hurt kids.  On the contrary, I’m sure they sincerely believe they’re helping.  But they can’t break out of the take-the-child-and-run mentality that plagues Florida child welfare, especially in their part of the state. 

When the Sheriff runs child protective services 

In most parts of Florida, the initial decision to tear a child from everyone s/he knows and loves is made by workers for the state Department of Children and Families.  But in a handful of counties, sheriff’s offices have that job.  Those counties tend to be concentrated in the Tampa Bay area, including Pinellas, Pasco, Hillsborough and Manatee. 

The people who pushed the change, about 20 years ago were hoping for just this result – they wanted sheriffs to tear apart more families, and the assumption was that hard-nosed cops would be even more fanatical about it than caseworkers. 

It looks like they were at least partly right.   Some counties where DCF still runs initial investigations take away appallingly large numbers of children.  Conversely, in Broward County, the Sheriff’s office has shown commendable restraint, taking proportionately fewer children than most counties where DCF still is in charge.  But in the other counties where sheriffs are in charge, the take-the-child-and-run crowd has gotten what it wanted – especially in Pinellas. 

Compare Pinellas to other large counties where sheriff’s deputies take away children – and note that all of these figures factor in rates of child poverty in each county: 

A child in Pinellas County is 33 percent more likely to be taken from her or his parents than a child in neighboring Pasco County.  That Pinellas County child is 60 percent more likely to be taken than a child in Manatee County, twice as likely to be taken as a child in Hillsborough County, nearly two-and-a-half times more likely to be taken away than the state average – and more than four times more likely to be taken away than a child in Broward County which, again, is another place where the sheriff’s office does the taking. 

In fact, were Pinellas County, Florida, a state, its rate of removal would be the seventh highest in the entire nation.


NCCPR calculates rates of removal by comparing Florida DCF data for entries into care for the year ending Sept. 30, 2021 (the most recent time period available) to a Census Bureau estimate of the number of children living in poverty in each county.  We believe this approach is fairer than simply comparing entries to the total child population, But, for the record: If you divide entries by total child population the relative position of these counties remains the same – Pinellas still is the most extreme outlier, and the rate of removal in Broward still is lowest.

Child removal ≠ child safety 

Ah, but if we’re taking away all those kids, we must be making them safer, the sheriff might say,  since the mantra in Florida for decades, with only a brief exception, has been to falsely equate child removal with child safety.  I can imagine Sheriff Gualtieri responding to these figures by taking perverse pride in how his officers supposedly “err on the side of the child” and put child safety ahead of family preservation. 

This, of course, ignores the enormous trauma to children caused by needless removal – even when the placements are good.  Recall what happened at the Mexican border and you get the idea.  How is that “erring on the side of child”?  The trauma is, of course, compounded when, according to the very people taking away the children, the placements are “disgusting and deplorable.”  How is that erring on the side of the child? 

But also, the more you overload systems with false reports trivial cases and needless foster care, the less likely you are to have time to find the relatively few children in real danger.  Instead of erring on the side of the child, the Sheriff’s approach makes all Pinellas County children less safe. 

Check out the data. 

The standard measure of child safety is this: Of all the children caseworkers or sheriff’s deputies deem to have been abused or neglected, what percent are abused or neglected again in the next 12 months? 

Here are the most recent available results for those same counties: 

Broward:                      5.28%

State average:             6.79%

Manatee:                      6.51%

Hillsborough:                7.07%

Pasco:                          7.27%

Pinellas:                   10.37% 

In fact, there are only six counties in the entire state, all much smaller than Pinellas, that do worse.  And note that the county with the lowest rate of removal, Broward, had the best safety record.  Bottom line: Pinellas County Sheriff’s deputies are taking away far too many children needlessly and missing more cases of real abuse and neglect than counties that show more restraint.  How is that erring on the side of the child? 

“As bad or worse” 

Still another measure of what happens to children can be found in Sherriff Gualtieri’s own statement.  He said that, under the care and supervision of Eckerd, “The conditions are as bad or worse than the living conditions from which the children were removed.” 

Which begs the question: If you know they’re going to be as bad or worse off, why are you taking them away in the first place? 

The statement about “as bad or worse” is misleading in one way, though: It plays to public stereotypes about families caught in the system.  It conjures up images of horror story cases that are very serious, very real, and very, very rare.  Far more common are cases in which family poverty is confused with neglect. 

Of course, Sheriff Gualtieri might reply: Well sure, a lot of times the problem is housing, but the housing was dangerous so what do you expect us to do about it?  We’re not a housing agency.  Or: We can’t very well provide childcare subsidies so children aren’t taken on “lack of supervision” charges, can we? 

Why not?  As the Sheriff himself put it: 

“You don’t whine about it. … You figure out a way to make it happen."

 So why can’t the Pinellas County Sheriff’s office take some of its budget and use it for emergency cash assistance, and rent subsidies, and housing repairs, and childcare subsidies.  Or at least follow the example of this police officer in Kansas City, Missouri. 

And where the issue is substance use that genuinely endangers children, how about using some of that budget to set up innovative home-based drug treatment programs – again, because it’s better for the children. 

The extent of wrongful removal 

We know how bad the problem of wrongful removal is nationally thanks to the mass of studies showing that, in typical cases, children left in their own homes do better even than comparably-maltreated children placed in foster care.  We know how bad it is in Florida thanks to excellent stories like this from USA Today Network Florida reporters. 

And we know how bad it is in the counties where Eckerd has been the lead agency thanks to the report of a “peer review team” DCF itself sent to Hillsborough County (metropolitan Tampa) in 2018. As we wrote at the time: 

The peer review found that workers in Hillsborough County are so terrified of having one of their cases land them on the front page after a tragedy that they were illegally taking large numbers of children needlessly. According to the report: 

Professionals in the system of care are often unnecessarily risk adverse due to the fear of child fatalities and media consequences. … [E]xtreme caution and risk aversion responses do not guarantee that tragic results will be avoided, and can cause unnecessary trauma to children. 

Indeed, as WFLA-TV documented in this tragic case, it can cause a child to die in foster care after being taken from a mother because that mother is poor. 

What “risk averse” really means is that child welfare investigators, supervisors and officials are increasing the risk to children in order to decrease the risk to themselves. 

The report found that investigators in Hillsborough County rush to remove children “without sufficient exploration, consideration, or conversation around reasonable efforts to prevent removal …” 

Yes, but that’s Hillsborough, not Pinellas.  True.  But as noted earlier the rate of removal in Pinellas is double the rate in Hillsborough.  So either Pinellas County Florida is a cesspool of depravity and parents in, say, St. Petersburg really are twice as likely to abuse their children as parents in Tampa and four times as likely to abuse their children as parents in Fort Lauderdale – or Pinellas County is taking away a whole lot of children who could have remained safely in their own homes.

It’s reasonable to bet it’s the latter, especially since Pinellas is the home county of the Tampa Bay Times, which has done everything it can to encourage the rush to tear apart families. 

Don’t pass the buck to the courts 

Typically, when confronted with high rates of removal, agencies will pass the buck to the courts.  We don’t take children, they say, the courts have to approve everything we do.  Somehow, they always manage to say this with a straight face. 

In fact, in Florida, as in every state, the child protective services agency, in this case, the sheriff’s office, has the power to remove children on the spot, entirely on their own authority.  The family has to then fight to get them back.  And it’s hardly a fair fight.  Since the families are almost always are poor, they almost always have to rely on an overwhelmed public defender who may have met them for the first time in a hallway five minutes before the hearing.  

Presiding is a judge who knows that if he sends the child home and something goes wrong his career is over (especially in Pinellas County where he’d have to face the wrath of the Tampa Bay Times with its fanatical devotion to tearing apart families).  Leave the children to the tender mercies of Eckerd Connects and the children may suffer terribly, but the judge is safe. 

Over in Louisiana, a judge was commendably honest about this.  In a decision ordering the return home of a child he never should have ordered taken away, the judge wrote: 

“The [Children’s] Code has created a system in which a judge must make a decision about probable cause based on factual and medical evidence without the benefit of a hearing, review of evidence, or any of the fact-finding tools which are obligatory in every other proceeding under the Anglo-American legal system ... This is a system which borders on a sham.” 

And, of course, arguing that judges said it was OK still doesn’t explain why Pinellas deputies believe they need to bring these cases in the first place at a vastly higher rate than their fellow deputies in neighboring counties. 

None of this should let Eckerd off the hook 

The fact that Sheriff Gualtieri and his counterparts in Pasco and Hillsborough Counties kept dumping kids on Eckerd’s doorstep doesn’t mean Eckerd had to tolerate it.  Had they spoken out loudly and clearly about wrongful removal right from the beginning, they could have curbed it.  As the “lead agency” for the region, Eckerd had the most influence in the system. Eckerd could have educated deputies about the harm of needless removal and pressed Gualtieri and his counterparts not to take so many children needlessly. They also could have pressed the courts to return children they thought the sheriff’s deputies had removed needlessly. 

Instead, from all appearances, they welcomed all those removals for years.  

We predicted Eckerd would fail as soon as they brought in as its director of community-based care Chris Card, who has his own demonstrated devotion to the take-the-child-and-run approach to child welfare.  And sure enough, he immediately lived down to his reputation.  

What the Sheriff got right 

On two points, Sheriff Gualtieri is right.  It would be wrong to target low-level Eckerd employees and make them scapegoats; to his credit he has pledged not to do this.  And there should be an investigation of Eckerd.  

But, good intentions notwithstanding, Sheriff Gualtieri shouldn’t be the one doing it.