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Shift to private children's services under way

For years, lawmakers have directed the Department of Children and Families to shift some of its duties to the private sector.

Locally, the department took a big step in that direction last year, when it hired an Illinois company to oversee adoptions and work with at-risk families in Citrus and surrounding counties.

Some DCF employees who worked in those areas took jobs with the new provider, Central Baptist Family Services.

Meanwhile, DCF stopped providing those services and adjusted to its new role: overseeing and monitoring Central Baptist's performance.

But the shuffle toward what is known as "community-based care" isn't finished in DCF District 13, which includes Citrus, Hernando, Marion, Lake and Sumter counties.

Two other parts of the equation _ finding a group or groups to supervise foster care and hiring a lead agency or agencies to oversee foster care, adoptions and related services _ remain works in progress.

Here's an update:

In July, the department is scheduled to issue an "invitation to negotiate," according to Janice Johnson, a top DCF administrator in District 13.

In other words, organizations interested in serving as lead agents and/or providing foster care services will receive word of what the department expects and what the state will pay.

Organizations will respond and negotiations will begin, Johnson said. From there, she said, any number of things could happen.

The department might hire one lead agency that would oversee adoptions, foster care and related services in all five counties. Or it might hire several lead agents who handle pieces of the work in their respective counties.

The lead agent or agents might be administrators only. Or they themselves might provide some or all of the services.

Johnson said the department's state and district leaders will make the selections after receiving input from the community.

The work and money at issue are significant. Take Central Baptist as an example. (Two retired Baptist ministers founded the company in 1895. Central Baptist is affiliated with American Baptist Churches USA and is a faith-based organization, but its social service work does not involve a religious mission, company leaders have said.)

Children and Families has secured two contracts with the company. 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 because of abuse, neglect or abandonment. When there is no relative willing or able to adopt the children, the department had been responsible for seeking permanent homes.

Now Central Baptist sponsors training classes, completes home studies to make sure potential adoptive parents have a suitable place for children to live, supervises and helps the children eligible for adoption and helps match children with adoptive parents, among other things.

The second contract is a $3.5-million agreement that calls for Central Baptist to handle what the department calls "protective services." That 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, case workers try to help parents or guardians improve parenting skills and better care for their young ones.

In Citrus, the Shared Services Alliance has agreed to help DCF shift toward community-based care.

The alliance helps coordinate social service programs for families and children. Its members come from the school system, law enforcement, county government, the judiciary and other like agencies.

In 2000, the alliance agreed to serve as Citrus County's "community alliance." The Legislature told DCF to create such alliances _ or, in Citrus' case, persuade an existing group to serve in that capacity _ to help DCF work through the privatization transition.

Once the private providers are in place, the alliance will help DCF oversee the work and make certain the providers are meeting the community's needs.

The Legislature initially said DCF should have its work finished by January 2003. But that deadline has been broadened.

INVESTIGATIONS: During an alliance meeting Thursday morning, Sheriff Jeff Dawsy mentioned another interesting wrinkle in the DCF shuffle.

Dawsy said his agency might consider a move to assume DCF's duty of investigating and processing claims of child abuse and neglect.

Johnson said the department isn't looking to pass on that responsibility, but DCF staffers have provided Dawsy's staff with information.

As it stands, the Sheriff's Office sends a representative each time a DCF investigator checks out a claim of child abuse or neglect. The law officer checks for criminal violations; the social worker follows a different protocol, sometimes referring the cases for court action and sometimes taking lesser steps, or no steps at all.

YOUTH NEWS: The Shared Services Alliances' youth activities committee plans to print a brochure that details what summer activities are available for youths. Organizations that offer such activities are asked to call Pennie Anderson at 621-9225 to provide information. The committee also is creating a resource directory.

The deadline for information is April 5.

_ Jim Ross writes about social services in Citrus County. Reach him at 860-7302 or jrosssptimes.com

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