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CHILD PROTECTION IN FLORIDA FALTERS

In calling for a review of child-protection services at the Sarasota Family YMCA, state Department of Children and Families Secretary Bob Butterworth has delivered an unmistakable message of accountability: No one will escape it.

The Sarasota Y is the dean of foster care providers in Florida, and today's network of 20 different state-funded nonprofit organizations exists in large part because of its early success. But the YMCA over the past decade has grown into a $91-million-a-year state-funded business, serving five counties including Pinellas and Pasco. There are ample signs it is faltering.

The death of an 18-month-old girl who had been returned to her dysfunctional mother and the inexcusable disappearance of a 2-year-old foster girl are the human warnings. But the statistical indicators are worrisome as well. A recent state report ranked Sarasota's north and south regions as two of the worst performers in the state, yet noted that the southern-counties contract pays the YMCA second-most in the state - $17,982 per child. In the first quarter of this year, the YMCA northern counties had the state's worst rate of missing foster children.

The agency's financial priorities have become murkier over time. It's hard enough to defend the compensation for YMCA CEO Carl Weinrich, $254,490, when it is almost half-again as much as Butterworth earns. More troubling, the generosity seems limited to the front office, with caseworkers being paid the second-lowest salaries in the state.

This may be only the tip of the community-based iceberg, and Butterworth has promised a top-to-bottom review of child protection services. At a meeting last week of the broader oversight committee, he was blunt: "Everything is on the table. Our system, if not broken, is in desperate need of serious repair."

The secretary should find willing bipartisan legislative support. Senate Children, Families and Elder Affairs Chairwoman Ronda Storms, R-Valrico, said recently: "I'm a supporter of ... privatization. I'm not such a supporter that I will ignore problems, glaring problems, or give them a pass when they fail."

Keeping children safe from some of the unthinkable environments in which they live is agonizingly difficult work. But the problem with accepting lower standards or poor communication or lack of follow-up is that children can die. Butterworth has to keep digging.

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