Is outsourcing the answer to states' foster-care woes?

Florida has now contracted all its child-welfare services to the private sector - a closely watched bid to help children.

More than four years ago, Rilya Wilson disappeared from her Florida foster home. Three years ago, the agency that had placed her there finally noticed.

Neglected and abused by her drug-addicted birth mother, the child had been placed with a caregiver who, it was hoped, would restore her lost childhood. Instead, prosecutors allege, that caregiver murdered the 5-year-old in December 2000, a tragedy that went unnoticed by state workers until April 2002.

The case made Florida a poster-child for major problems facing child-welfare programs in the US.

Now, Florida hopes to become a poster child of a different sort: a model for how privatization child-welfare services work better. Although states have increasingly farmed out tasks to private contractors, Florida's effort is controversial because it relates to one of the most sensitive responsibilities of government: when and how to intervene on behalf of children in troubled circumstances. And it will be closely watched, because other states also face pressure to improve such programs.

The results so far appear to be mixed, but Gov. Jeb Bush (R) is counting on the effort over time to help turn around services tarnished by scandal.

"This is a model that other states should look at very carefully and begin to test out," says David Fairbanks, deputy director of the program, called Community-Based Care. CBC is a network of localized, nonprofit agencies to which Florida's Department of Children and Families has gradually turned to provide foster-care, adoption, and child protection services.

With that outsourcing now complete, Florida is the first state to have 100 percent of its child-welfare services in private hands. Officials believe that the 48,972 children it serves are now protected by a more responsive, more accountable system and that other states should follow.

"We have worked hard to improve our image, and CBC has been a big part of that, because now it's hometown agencies that are doing this work," Mr. Fairbanks says. "But we are putting a more local face on the job of child protection - and it's working."

Breaking down a monolithic agency

Instead of being run from Tallahassee, the state capital, Florida's child welfare system has now been carved up into 23 districts, each coordinated and supervised by a "lead agency" that receives funds through a contract with the Department of Children and Families (DCF). Those lead agencies subcontract to community groups.

In some areas, however, there is concern that breaking down the monolith that was DCF has brought more drawbacks than it has rewards.

Consider the area around Indian River County. Debra Wesley, president of the Foster Parents Association for the county, says that many of her members are frustrated and disillusioned by the changes, which have left the service confusingly fragmented and without sufficient staff or funding to deliver on their obligations.

Under United for Families, the lead agency for her area, "there are case workers leaving left and right because they aren't happy and they are overloaded," she claims, adding that this means less support for foster children, adoptees, and those who care for them.

Meanwhile, case workers and case managers complain that once-straightforward tasks, from ordering stationery to getting permission from superiors to grant a child psychiatric counseling, have become fraught with delay.

Most important, the number of foster parents in the area has declined. UFF had aimed to boost the number of foster homes in its district by around 25 percent after it took over, but instead the total has dropped by around 6 percent. UFF says that last year's hurricanes have been a factor in the squeeze, though figures show that of the 26 families that quit fostering this year, only two gave hurricane damage as a reason.

In Palm Beach County, Child and Family Connections - the lead agency for the area - has had more success. It now has 300 foster homes on its books - 110 more than when DCF ran the show.

CFC has also had its share of problems, however, having been ordered by DCF to put its house in order after it was discovered that of 21 "serious incidents" involving children in shelters and group care facilities - such as fights and runaway episodes - only three were reported within the legally required eight-hour time frame.

Financial pressures

Another troublesome issue is finance. Of the 23 contracts that DCF has signed with private-sector bodies, just one - covering Miami-Dade and Monroe counties - has a built-in clause that promises extra funds if the number of children it handles increases by more than 3 percent over the course of its 14-month span.

Other contractors must simply make do - or at least try to. Last year, Family Continuity Programs, the lead agency for Pinellas County, folded spectacularly after running out of cash. The agency blamed an unexpected rise in the number of children and families to provide for.

Mr. Fairbanks, who says FCP simply "didn't manage their money well," points out that it has been the only financial flop since the privatization was launched in 1998 as part of Governor Bush's effort to overhaul a system beset with scandals over child deaths, neglect, mismanagement and crippling bureaucracy.

He says that while more funding could always be useful, moving the management of the system into the community has already brought a vastly improved service for troubled children in Florida.

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