County Ends Child Welfare Agency; Managing Family Matters Was a Problem Because of Confidentiality Regulations
Hurst, Mary, The Florida Times Union
Byline: MARY HURST
Nassau County will dismantle Family Matters, the county department formed four years ago to handle foster care and adoption services here.
The County Commission voted 3-2 to terminate its contract with the Florida Department of Children and Families on Wednesday, giving the DCF 30 days' notice to find someone else to provide the services in Nassau.
DCF spokesman John Harrell said Wednesday that Family Support Services, which provides child welfare services in Duval County, will do the same for Nassau County on an emergency basis for a year or longer. The agency will be paid $2.7 million annually, the same amount as Family Matters. The transition of child welfare cases will take up to 180 days.
"From the Department of Children and Families point of view, child safety and lack of disruption is the No. 1 priority to the DCF, Family Support Services and Family Matters," DCF District Administrator Nancy Dreicer said Wednesday. "We will all work together so this transition can be smooth for the community."
Despite Family Matters being ranked first in the state for its performance and adoption rates for an agency its size, commissioners opted to put an end to the department after deliberations Tuesday and Wednesday about the future of the department.
Commissioners said they had heard complaints about the way adoptions were handled by Family Matters. Because of the confidentiality required in foster care cases, commissioners had been told they could not get answers about complaints from its own department.
They also recently found out they were the appeals board for grievances against Family Matters. Commissioners said Wednesday, that put them in the difficult position of being a public body, subject to open meeting and public records law, trying to deliberate on confidential cases.
"This has become bigger than all of us," Commissioner Marianne Marshall said.
Commissioner Barry Holloway agreed with Marshall about the commission's uncomfortable role in the agency.
"We don't have the expertise to do this," he said. "I would feel more comfortable putting this in the hands of a professional."
Commission Chairman Jim B. Higginbotham said he was worried about liability issues.
"These kids deserve more professional care than I know how to provide them," he said. "I don't want to put this county into the liable state that I fear we're going to get into."
Commissioner Tom Branan, who along with Commissioner Mike Boyle voted not to terminate the contract, said he didn't want to throw away a process that operates well.
"Why is everyone in a rush to do this?" he asked.
On Tuesday, Family Matters Executive Director Judy Dey defended her agency and the work it did.
She asked commissioners to allow Family Matters the opportunity to apply to become a private, nonprofit agency, which would allow it to bid for the DCF contract in 2009.
She also asked commissioners if they were having complaints about her department, why they didn't come to her and ask her about any problems they'd heard from constituents.
"If all of you really cared about our agency, you'd call me or [office manager] Beth McDonald," an emotional Dey said. "Never once do you come to me, never once."
Family Support Services Executive Director Jim Adams said his agency would evaluate Family Matters' current staff and keep the Nassau offices. …