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DCF hires company to share its duties

State leaders have long worked to shift some duties away from the Department of Children and Families and toward the private sector.

A big part of that shift is under way.

Children and Families has agreed to pay an Illinois company $5.2-million to oversee adoptions and work with at-risk families in Citrus, Hernando and surrounding counties.

The contracts, which recently went into effect, will be up for renewal in June 2002.

"They're going to bring new ideas," said Patrick Howard, top administrator for Children and Families District 13. That district also includes Marion, Lake and Sumter counties.

"They" are the people at Central Baptist Family Services, a Chicago-based social service agency that now works in Illinois and Missouri.

Central Baptist is busy hiring and training staff. It has 55 people on payroll, a number that eventually will swell to 75 or 80. It also is establishing offices in the five counties.

The company should be ready to accept all adoption cases by August and the remainder of its workload by fall, said Greg Kurth, senior vice president for Florida operations.

Children and Families expected a local provider to win the contracts, Howard said. But he said Central Baptist _ which had no presence in Florida, no less District 13 _ presented the best bid.

Karla Thomas, director of communications for Central Baptist, said two retired Baptist ministers founded the company in 1895. She said that although the company remains affiliated with American Baptist Churches USA and is a faith-based organization, it does not have a religious mission.

In fact, she said Central Baptist's duties here will be similar to what it's doing for governments in the Northern states. In Illinois alone it serves more than 5,000 families.

Children and Families has secured two contracts. One, for $1.7-million, calls on Central Baptist to handle all adoption duties that Children and Families once handled.

At issue are children whose parents have lost parental rights. The court strips such rights when adults severely abuse, neglect or abandon their kids. When there is no relative willing or able to adopt the children, the department has been responsible for seeking permanent homes.

Jeanie Kittel, a top administrator with Children and Families, said Central Baptist will do what her agency once did: sponsor training classes, complete home studies to make sure potential adoptive parents have a suitable place for children to live, supervise and help the children eligible for adoption and help match children with adoptive parents, among other things.

Why hire some company to do what Children and Families already was doing? Because that's how the Legislature wanted to proceed.

Kittel said state lawmakers recognized District 13's need for help in adoption work. But the state wants Children and Families to move toward privatization, so it wouldn't make sense to fund some new jobs that might be dropped in the near future.

So the Legislature sent a block of money to District 13 and told it to hire a private company.

"The children are always in the custody of the department. The department always has the responsibility," Kittel said. But "we see it as a way to expand our services, to give us a larger resource out in the community. We see it as a good thing."

How can this be considered an expansion? Because even though the adoption work has shifted to the private sector, the Legislature did not cut the 13 job slots that Children and Families once dedicated to adoption services.

Most of the people who filled those slots have left the department to work with Central Baptist, essentially continuing in their same jobs. Children and Families can fill the positions with new people, most of whom will work in foster care.

The state agency received similar good news concerning the second contract, a $3.5-million agreement that calls for Central Baptist to handle what the department calls "protective services."

Again, the Legislature recognized District 13's need for help. And again, it authorized hiring of a private company instead of creating new state jobs.

Children and Families had 26 job slots dedicated to protective services. Now, even though the work has shifted to Central Baptist, the department keeps the slots.

Unlike their counterparts in adoptions, the protective services workers largely stayed with Children and Families and sought new assignments, Kittel said.

Protective services is a general term to describe how the state has worked with families where, although the children might be at risk, the situation is not dire enough to require court action.

In such situations, caseworkers try to help parents or guardians improve parenting skills and better care for their young ones.

Central Baptist caseworkers will monitor these families from now on, getting assistance from programs such as Family Builders, another private program that Children and Families has long used.

Children and Families will continue to control protective investigations, an area where workers handle cases of abuse, neglect and abandonment that require court action. Likewise, the department will work closely with Central Baptist on the protective services cases.

"They have a tremendous amount of experience in Illinois doing this sort of work, so it's not something new to them," Kittel said. "We have a lot of faith in their ability to do the job well."

For the time being, Central Baptist's local offices will be inside Children and Families' service center on U.S. 41 N in Inverness.

Kittel said the department's move to privatization won't stop here: It still seeks a "lead agency" in Citrus County to oversee and possibly even provide foster care services. Protective investigations, however, will remain a state duty.