Cover Story

Booting big government

"Booting big government" Continued...

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

Inside KidsPlace, the two auditors chat easily with Roy and Ruth Ramos, former missionaries to Russia who have seen 55 children come through the house-six at a time-in the 16 months they've been there. In a few days the Ramoses will receive another visit, this one to re-license them as foster parents. By scheduling such visits close together, ChildNet seeks to minimize the disruption to foster families-something that was never a consideration when DCF was running the show directly.

Mrs. Ramos gives her visitors a quick tour, pointing out the six color-coded hand towels in the bathroom and the comforters that reverse from florals to checks if there are more boys than girls living in the house. In every room, visible symbols of 4Kids' mission are hard to miss: Two young girls do their homework at a table piled high with Bibles in various formats and translations. In the kitchen, where the Ramoses talk with their interviewers, Galatians 5:22-23 is stenciled above the sliding doors that lead to a backyard swimming pool.

Mr. Lukasik says the privatization effort has made it easier for faith-based organizations to work with the state. "Community-based care makes the system more responsive to our needs," he notes. "We know the Christians who work at ChildNet, so we know who to call if there's a problem"-a level of familiarity that would be impossible with faceless government employees in far-off Tallahassee.

Mr. Lukasik also appreciates ChildNet's willingness to depart from the way things have always been done. For instance, a child's point of entry into the foster-care system used to be an afterthought, as officials scrambled to find more permanent housing. But thanks to the success of SafePlace, every new child now spends at least his or her first day in Broward's welfare system under the supervision of caring Christians in a home-like environment. (Mr. Lukasik estimates that 8 percent to 10 percent of the children eventually find their way into long-term Christian foster homes or adoptive families.)

More innovations are yet to come, Mr. Lukasik promises. With a new grant from the Christian Community Foundation, 4Kids plans to establish a pilot program for teens transitioning out of the foster-care system. Currently, 18-year-olds "age out" of foster care with an $800 check and a pat on the back. 4Kids wants to help them with job training, mentoring, and housing as they get established on their own. Mr. Lukasik hopes the privately funded effort will eventually win a state contract, making it available to even more needy teens.

Mr. Lamb of Florida Baptist Children's Homes believes such faith-based efforts represent the future of the child welfare system. As more states privatize and localize their foster care, he thinks they will continue to reach out to church groups that provided such services long before the state got involved. (FBCH has helped nearly 25,000 children in its 101-year history.)

"The state absolutely has to have us at the table," he says. "They cannot function without the community, and a big part of any community is the faith-based component."


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