From Jacksonville to Sarasota, from Pensacola to Palm Beach, the private sector is taking over the state's role as protectors of abused and neglected children.
Most child welfare services statewide are scheduled for private control by 2003.
The future of thousands of children is at stake in the public-to-private switch. In June, 11,698 children lived in Florida's foster care system.
And an annual evaluation of pilot privatized projects, authorized by the Legislature, said it's too soon to tell whether private care is better than public because there are too many issues to draw reliable conclusions.
But the head of the state agency responsible for child welfare and protective services says privatization is the right choice.
"The state in the past has been a very poor parent," said Kathleen Kearney, secretary of the Department of Children and Families. "In reality, . . . [they were] the community's children and . . . the local community's problem. Now, with community-based care, they will help to own the problem and provide solutions."
The shift of child welfare services from public to private control began in 1996 when state lawmakers approved privateagency test projects in several communities. In 1998, legislators enacted sweeping changes to state law that transfer most child welfare services to the private sector by Jan. 1, 2003.
When the Legislature authorized pilot privatized projects for child welfare, it also ordered an annual evaluation. Two have been completed.
The 1998-99 report by evaluation and management consultant Brian R. Peacock found it isn't possible to distinguish community-based child welfare performance from the state's approach.
The report also said:
The privatized system doesn't have the benefit of the child welfare experience and knowledge of the key veteran state staff.
More fiscal and legal risks exist for private agencies, which won't have the benefit of sovereign immunity.
Parents may be less resistant to receiving help from community-based agencies.
Duval County already provides private foster care for teens.
Andy Laino, director of Family Services Coalition, said the coalition focuses on teens because not enough public foster homes are available to serve them.
"It's very difficult for older children who have been in foster care to be adopted, and the longer they stay in foster care, the harder it gets to unify them with their family," Laino said. …