Cover Story

Booting big government

What do you do with a massive, inefficient foster-care system that reports thousands of children killed, abused, or simply "lost" while under the state's care? If you're Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, you privatize the whole thing, turning the sytem over to local nonprofits and faith-based groups

Issue: "Foster care's future," March 5, 2005

The brightly painted halls of SafePlace are mostly quiet on a Wednesday afternoon, except for the squeals of delight coming from the playroom. There, two little boys are sitting in bean-bag chairs racing motorcycles across the desert in a rich video game.

Surrounded by stuffed animals and cartoon posters, the boys seem happy and carefree. Judging from their smiles, you'd never know they are about to become a statistic: two more kids entering the child welfare system in Broward County, Fla.-two out of 1,000, if this year is like most.

If the boys seem happy on their first day as wards of the state, they can thank 4Kids of South Florida, the faith-based nonprofit organization that established SafePlace as the entry point for new children coming into the system. With its happy colors and homey feeling, SafePlace tries to be warm and welcoming for kids going through a traumatic time. Before SafePlace, children would simply sit in a cubicle next to a strange adult, listening to increasingly desperate phone calls as social workers tried to find a foster home with an empty bed in the third-fastest-growing state in the nation.

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Innovations like SafePlace are just a few of the improvements made to Florida's child welfare system over the past few years. Not too long ago, the two little boys in Ft. Lauderdale might have become much more serious statistics, as investigations turned up thousands of children who were killed, abused, or simply lost in the state's sprawling bureaucracy. In a 2002 case that attracted national attention, state workers checking up on 4-year-old Rilya Wilson discovered that the child was missing from the home in which she'd been placed. In fact, by the time her case was discovered, no one could remember seeing little Rilya for 15 months. Three years later, she is still listed as missing.

An embarrassed state legislature, prodded by Gov. Jeb Bush, responded by privatizing the entire child welfare system. Now, instead of centralized control by the Department of Children and Families (DCF) in Tallahassee, the system is administered much closer to home. Dubbed "community-based care," the new initiative entrusts child welfare services to homegrown charities rather than distant bureaucrats. Local "lead agencies" receive multimillion-dollar bloc grants to administer services in one to five counties. Those agencies, in turn, parcel out contracts to dozens of charities within their region, then check up to ensure the money is being spent wisely.

In Florida, the new system has not been without problems of its own. Years after the rest of the state had complied with privatization orders, Miami-Dade, the state's largest and most troubled county, has yet to fully implement the program. And in central Florida, a private agency overseeing five counties has until mid-March to show it can live up to the terms of its $84 million contract. If the agency, Kid Central, fails to convince DCF it can adequately monitor and protect the children in its care, the state has threatened to yank its contract, causing potential chaos for hundreds of foster families in the region.

Despite the kinks, local service providers give the new initiative generally high marks. The critics of community-based care "tend to be against privatization of any kind," says Daniel Lamb, South Florida Administrator for Florida Baptist Children's Homes. FBCH accepts some 200 children a year in its South Florida facilities, some 90 percent of whom are referred by the state. With homes in both Broward and Miami-Dade counties, Mr. Lamb can compare the system in one county where privatization has been fully implemented and one where it has not.

"There are some initial signs of progress" in Broward compared to Dade, he says. "We're seeing more of a quality-control emphasis than what we had in the past." ChildNet, the lead agency for Broward County, "is holding providers to quality-assurance goals in order to continue funding"-something DCF was rarely able to do.

Thirty miles up the road in Ft. Lauderdale, Tom Lukasik is experiencing that quality control firsthand. The executive director of 4Kids has been holed up all morning with an audit team from ChildNet, the lead agency that supplies 60 percent of his annual budget. Now the auditors are headed into the field, checking up on 4Kids facilities sprinkled around the county.

As he pulls up in front of KidsPlace, a small group home for foster children, Mr. Lukasik says he appreciates the local oversight. "ChildNet does a more thorough audit than DCF ever did. DCF would kind of glance around and say, 'Yep, it all looks good to me.' ChildNet takes their time. They ask good questions. In this business, that kind of oversight is a good thing."

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