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Friday, Sep 21, 2018
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Daniel Ruth: Florida should consider taking back its outsourced foster care services

We hear a great deal about how government is the source of all evil, a wasteful, incompetent coven of lazy paper-pushing bureaucrats.

That is why the heavens open and the angels sing and all is right with the world whenever we can wrest away various services from those hapless boobs in the public sector and hand everything over to those pillars of efficiency in the private sphere.

Until it isn’t.

For many years, the Florida Department of Children and Families has outsourced a considerable chunk of its child foster care services to private contractors.

RELATED COVERAGE State threatens to fire Eckerd Connects if it doesn’t address Hillsborough foster care needs

In Hillsborough County, Eckerd Connects has a $77 million contract to provide foster care services. And so you would think, based on the implied suggestion a public agency couldn’t possibly handle such a monumental and vital task as looking after the well-being of children in distress, that Eckerd Connects would be a paragon of sensitivity and professionalism and efficiency. And you would be wrong.

A DCF review of Eckerd Connects has painted a scathing portrait of the agency’s handling of foster care, noting many children in Eckerd’s care live a "chaotic and transient lifestyle."

At any given time there are about 3,500 children in Hillsborough County either in foster care or at risk of being removed from their home environment.

The report concluded too many children remain in foster care for more than year; there is a woeful lack of places for children with behavioral health needs; a lack of stability leaves children isolated and feeling unwanted; and too many children must wait far too long for crucial services such as counseling and health assessments.

Many children are schlepped around to different foster homes on a nightly basis. Some live in dirty clothes and lack proper food. This is Florida, by the way, not some third world backwater.

All that for a mere $77 million a year. Such a deal.

Let’s pause here to acknowledge looking after dependent children in Florida is a massive undertaking. And it is probably fair to note even the best intentioned and staffed group of people are always going to have enormous obstacles to overcome.

But it also reasonable to argue that simply outsourcing the state’s responsibility to service and protect foster children to a private entity hardly guarantees success.

Indeed, there are a variety of private sector enterprises engaged in foster care services, many of them with a hodge-podge of conflicting policies and varying levels of skills.

The problem here is that when things turn ugly, and they always do, more finger-pointing ensues than trying to affix blame for the Kennedy assassination.

At the risk of committing heresy, one could assume DCF might make better use of that $77 million if it simply took over the task of looking after children charged to its care itself and used the funding to hire more case workers and facilities for at-risk children. A perfect solution? Far from it. But at least it would lead to greater accountability.

Ironically, while state government is stocked with more than its fair share of buffoons, DCF has a long history of secretaries who were able, dedicated public servants including Jim Towey, Bob Butterworth, George Sheldon, David Wilkins and currently Mike Carroll.

And we’ve learned merely transferring other government functions to the private sector has not translated into greater efficiencies. Charter schools generally fare no better in student achievement than public schools.

Nor has privatizing prisons brought a marked improvement in the quality of corrections.

Eckerd officials have promised to improve their performance. And the agency has until June 30 to come up with a corrective action plan to hold onto its $77 million contract with the state.

How dysfunctional has the foster system become? As Roy Miller, president of the non-profit Children’s Campaign, told the Tampa Bay Times’ Christopher O’Donnell, children removed from dire home environments are often subjected to even greater chaos and trouble in the foster care system.

And now time is running short to figure out a way to morph a Lord of the Flies situation into Walton Mountain. And that is the $77 million question.

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