Is Outsourcing the Answer to States' Foster-Care Woes? ; Florida Has Now Contracted All Its Child-Welfare Services to the Private Sector - a Closely Watched Bid to Help Children

Article excerpt

More than four years ago, Rilya Wilson disappeared from her Florida foster home. Three years ago, the agency that had placed her there finally noticed.

Neglected and abused by her drug-addicted birth mother, the child had been placed with a caregiver who, it was hoped, would restore her lost childhood. Instead, prosecutors allege, that caregiver murdered the 5-year-old in December 2000, a tragedy that went unnoticed by state workers until April 2002.

The case made Florida a poster-child for major problems facing child-welfare programs in the US.

Now, Florida hopes to become a poster child of a different sort: a model for how privatization child-welfare services work better. Although states have increasingly farmed out tasks to private contractors, Florida's effort is controversial because it relates to one of the most sensitive responsibilities of government: when and how to intervene on behalf of children in troubled circumstances. And it will be closely watched, because other states also face pressure to improve such programs.

The results so far appear to be mixed, but Gov. Jeb Bush (R) is counting on the effort over time to help turn around services tarnished by scandal.

"This is a model that other states should look at very carefully and begin to test out," says David Fairbanks, deputy director of the program, called Community-Based Care. CBC is a network of localized, nonprofit agencies to which Florida's Department of Children and Families has gradually turned to provide foster-care, adoption, and child protection services.

With that outsourcing now complete, Florida is the first state to have 100 percent of its child-welfare services in private hands. Officials believe that the 48,972 children it serves are now protected by a more responsive, more accountable system and that other states should follow.

"We have worked hard to improve our image, and CBC has been a big part of that, because now it's hometown agencies that are doing this work," Mr. Fairbanks says. "But we are putting a more local face on the job of child protection - and it's working."

Breaking down a monolithic agency

Instead of being run from Tallahassee, the state capital, Florida's child welfare system has now been carved up into 23 districts, each coordinated and supervised by a "lead agency" that receives funds through a contract with the Department of Children and Families (DCF). Those lead agencies subcontract to community groups.

In some areas, however, there is concern that breaking down the monolith that was DCF has brought more drawbacks than it has rewards.

Consider the area around Indian River County. Debra Wesley, president of the Foster Parents Association for the county, says that many of her members are frustrated and disillusioned by the changes, which have left the service confusingly fragmented and without sufficient staff or funding to deliver on their obligations. …