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Initial stumble or permanent bungle?

It has been billed as the answer to Florida's social service mess: a radical new approach designed to put much of the scandal-prone Department of Children and Families out of business.

But one of the longest-running programs created to meet Gov. Jeb Bush's vision of a state social services system turned over to local, nonprofit agencies has built a track record that makes some experts wonder whether Florida moved down the new road too quickly.

Family Continuity Programs, which in 2000 took over foster care in Pinellas and Pasco counties, has been criticized for the past two years for failing to meet some basic standards for protecting abused and neglected children.

A state investigation last year concluded that Family Continuity had sent foster kids into potentially abusive homes and that caseworkers didn't understand when to report new cases of abuse. Children are moved from foster home to foster home far too frequently, state officials say.

"The emotional toll on the children being moved around within our system is tremendous, and we will deal with its aftermath for years to come," Patsy Buker, executive director of Help-A-Child Inc., wrote in a letter to the Pinellas Juvenile Welfare Board.

Buker also complained that a foster child had been given new caseworkers 12 times in the past 11 months.

And now, state officials have warned Family Continuity it could lose its license unless it reduces foster home overcrowding.

In spite of these stumbles, the state's push to privatize child welfare services is charging ahead. In fact, DCF Secretary Jerry Regier last year decided to speed up the transition for most regions by about six months.

About half of the 22 DCF districts across Florida have signed contracts to shift their foster care programs over to other community agencies, said David Fairbanks, DCF assistant director for child welfare and community-based care. He expects the whole state except the Miami-Dade district to follow suit by July 1 and Miami-Dade to come on board by the end of the year.

This month, Bush said Family Continuity's troubles do not make him think the state rushed into its new approach.

""Not at all," he said. "I think that given the record of community-based care posted up against the Department of Children and Families, community-based care is the way to go."

Bush said DCF officials have monitored Family Continuity, checked its progress and pointed out its shortcomings as they are required to, "so it's working in that regard."

Although some community-based agencies around the state have won high marks _ state officials often praise those in Sarasota and Escambia counties _ Family Continuity is not the only one to get into trouble.

In 2000, DCF canceled its contracts with the Lake County Boy's Ranch amid claims that it essentially had stolen state money through double- and triple-billing for children's services. (Prosecutors ultimately dropped Medicaid fraud and grand theft charges.)

More recently, state reviewers have slammed a similar agency in Volusia County for failing to make required monthly visits to foster children, high caseloads and accounting problems.

Some experts worry about the pace of the changes.

"I would be very concerned with artificial dates that say, "We're going to be full-blown into community-based care by July 1.' I don't think it's fair to anybody, certainly not to kids and families," said Larry Pintacuda, a former high-ranking DCF official who now serves as chief executive officer of the advocacy group Voices for Florida's Children.

"Making a radical change is difficult," said Don Dixon, a former DCF district administrator for Hillsborough and Manatee counties who now works for the Hillsborough Children's Board. "Making radical change in a hurry can be even more difficult."

Radical change is a good way of describing the community-based care approach. For decades, Florida has dealt with child abuse and neglect through its massive social services agency DCF, formerly known as HRS. The agency has suffered blistering criticism over the years after various tragedies involving children. Among them: Rilya Wilson, the Miami girl who disappeared while under state supervision in 2002, and Kayla McKean, the 6-year-old Lake County girl killed by her father after caseworkers missed clear signs of abuse.

The solution endorsed by Bush, the Florida Legislature and some child welfare experts is to blow this system up and give its pieces to local communities. The theory is that a local agency with an office on Main Street will operate with better support and communication than a distant state bureaucracy.

So DCF is getting out of the business of directly sending its workers to homes and schools to investigate child abuse and work with the parents of children in foster care. DCF is supposed to remain closely involved, however, by supervising contracts and monitoring how well the agencies perform.

That's what DCF has been doing with Family Continuity, and it often has found problems.

After whistle-blowers complained that Family Continuity had sent foster children into abusive homes, the DCF inspector general concluded in April 2003 that "(Family Continuity) continues to place children in foster homes that have been reported as abusive, that at least one former case manager failed to make appropriate referrals for psychological evaluations for children and that (Family Continuity) case managers failed to provide necessary information to foster parents."

A DCF report distributed this month to the Pinellas Juvenile Welfare Board cited "a lack of fundamental supervisory oversight" at Family Continuity.

It also said that more than one in four children in a sample review had three different caseworkers during a one-year period and that nearly one in four children in licensed foster homes had been moved three times in the same year. Both findings are considered bad, because children in general need stability, especially those who might have suffered abuse and have been separated from their families.

Not all of Family Continuity's reviews have been negative. The agency has done an excellent job of working to find permanent adoptive homes for foster children, DCF regional administrator Lynn Richard told the Juvenile Welfare Board.

Family Continuity spokeswoman April Putzulu said the agency is in the process of increasing its caseworkers from 149 last year to 228 this year. This process already has begun to turn around some of the problems the agency was facing, Putzulu said, because more caseworkers means smaller caseloads and more time to work harder on the needs of individual families. This change "has improved everything: lower turnover rate, they have improved client responses, decreased client complaints, bringing on more foster homes."

But questions remain. Family Continuity recently let go its executive director and hired a for-profit Arizona company to provide a manager.

Fairbanks acknowledged doing some "soul-searching" over that arrangement, but said it's not necessarily bad. In the medical field, administrators routinely hire for-profit companies to help provide services, he said.

But, he added, "it increases the onus on the department as the ultimate purchaser with taxpayer dollars to make sure that we know what we're getting."

_ Information from the Orlando Sentinel was used in this report. Curtis Krueger can be reached at kruegersptimes.com or at (727) 893-8232.

The privatization of child welfare

For years, state government caseworkers worked directly with abused and neglected children. Now that's changing. Although the state still does some of the work, in other cases, it has given contracts to different agencies:

Abuse Foster care

investigations programs

Pinellas Sheriff's Family Continuity Programs

and Pasco offices (nonprofit, with temporary

counties management provided by a

for-profit company) and

partners

Hillsborough Department of Hillsborough Kids Inc.

county Children and (nonprofit) and partners

Families

Hernando Deparment of DCF, preparing to transfer

and Citrus Children and to Kids Central Inc.

counties Families (nonprofit)

Source: Department of Children and Families

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