HILLSBOROUGH COUNTY, Fla. (WFLA) – The executive director of Eckerd Kids told a room full of child welfare advocates assembled in Tampa on Tuesday that her private agency is working its way out of a $2.3 million deficit and improving the $73 million publicly-funded foster care program that you paid for in Hillsborough County.
“We have a lot of people in training and we have recently increased retention rates as well,” said Jodi Grutza. That can’t happen soon enough. Performance data released Monday by Eckerd Kids indicates that a third of foster care caseworkers in Hillsborough County have caseloads of 26 kids or more. There’s also been a 58 percent turnover rate for caseworkers during the past 12 months. The number of foster kids neglected or abused while in Eckerd’s Hillsborough foster care system is in the “red zone.”
Last month, our 8 on Your Side investigation uncovered a night of violence at a foster care teen center that required hospital treatment for teens and a caseworker who was severely beaten. It turned out that some foster teens were being warehoused at the center until 11 p.m. on a regular basis. Those revelations and other issues prompted the Department of Children and Families (DCF) to threaten revocation of Eckerd’s foster care contract.
DCF Regional Community Development Director Jennifer Kuhn told us on Tuesday the teen center issue has been resolved and Eckerd is making forward progress with foster care, but that DCF is monitoring the private agency very closely.
At Tuesday’s meeting of child welfare stakeholders known as the Community Alliance, Grutza said Eckerd had managed to whittle down its foster care operating deficit to $1.3 million and that new “at risk” funding from the state along with a boost in funding from state lawmakers will result in a balanced budget next year. Grutza promised to hire additional case workers and pledged that more money will be spent on the recruitment of foster care parents and more incentives for parents who take in troublesome foster teens.
One touchy issue Grutza chose not to address at the Community Alliance gathering is the executive salary structure at Eckerd Kids. Eckerd President and CEO David Dennis collects $746,000 a year, including an annual bonus that exceeds $200,000. Eckerd also spends $9,500 a month on former WTSP-TV General Manager Elliot Wiser to serve as a public relations consultant to help boost the agency’s battered image.
When we asked at the meeting whether Eckerd would consider forgoing Dennis’ $200,000 bonus or Wiser’s $9,500 a month consulting fees and spending that money instead on foster care and parent recruiting, Grutza dodged the question.
“I’m not comfortable responding to that question, but you can contact Adrienne [Drew] at our external relations department,” Grutza said during a question and answer period.
Drew later responded in an email, “I am so sorry, but I am not able to provide these answers today due to the timing. You did not provide enough time for us to answer, so please just use what we have already provided since we already have answered these questions.”
Child advocate Larry English who works with the Federation of Families attended the Community Alliance meeting and shared his views on Eckerd’s executive salaries immediately after the meeting ended.
“I have a severe problem with that,” English said. “Public money should be used to the public good, but this has been the process of many of the nonprofit organizations throughout the State of Florida, particularly.”
Apparently, state lawmakers share the same concern. DCF Spokesman David Frady says legislation that would limit the executive salaries of private social service agencies is now on Governor Scott’s desk awaiting his signature or veto. That bill would limit salaries to 150 percent of the annual pay that DCF Secretary Mike Carroll receives, $140,539.
According to a legislative analysis of an earlier version of that bill, 15 of the state’s 18 privately lead social service agencies pay their CEO’s more than Carroll. Eckerd Kids is one of them. The bill analysis lists Grutza’s salary as Executive Director at $176,436.
Even if the governor does sign the legislation into law, Dennis’ pay as President and CEO of Eckerd’s parent nonprofit organization is immune from any limits. Only the Eckerd board of directors can decide his pay and bonus.
“You know an agency’s priorities by where they send their money, point blank,” said English. “When they’re giving CEOs of nonprofits those enormous salaries without justifiable results for the work that they do, it’s absurd. It’s not good for the taxpayer. It’s not good for the recipients.”
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