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Booting big government

What do you do with a massive, inefficient foster-care system that reports thousands of children killed, abused, or simply "lost" while under the state's care?

Booting big government

The brightly painted halls of SafePlace are mostly quiet on a Wednesday afternoon, except for the squeals of delight coming from the playroom. There, two little boys are sitting in bean-bag chairs racing motorcycles across the desert in a rich video game.

Surrounded by stuffed animals and cartoon posters, the boys seem happy and carefree. Judging from their smiles, you'd never know they are about to become a statistic: two more kids entering the child welfare system in Broward County, Fla.-two out of 1,000, if this year is like most.

If the boys seem happy on their first day as wards of the state, they can thank 4Kids of South Florida, the faith-based nonprofit organization that established SafePlace as the entry point for new children coming into the system. With its happy colors and homey feeling, SafePlace tries to be warm and welcoming for kids going through a traumatic time. Before SafePlace, children would simply sit in a cubicle next to a strange adult, listening to increasingly desperate phone calls as social workers tried to find a foster home with an empty bed in the third-fastest-growing state in the nation.

Innovations like SafePlace are just a few of the improvements made to Florida's child welfare system over the past few years. Not too long ago, the two little boys in Ft. Lauderdale might have become much more serious statistics, as investigations turned up thousands of children who were killed, abused, or simply lost in the state's sprawling bureaucracy. In a 2002 case that attracted national attention, state workers checking up on 4-year-old Rilya Wilson discovered that the child was missing from the home in which she'd been placed. In fact, by the time her case was discovered, no one could remember seeing little Rilya for 15 months. Three years later, she is still listed as missing.

An embarrassed state legislature, prodded by Gov. Jeb Bush, responded by privatizing the entire child welfare system. Now, instead of centralized control by the Department of Children and Families (DCF) in Tallahassee, the system is administered much closer to home. Dubbed "community-based care," the new initiative entrusts child welfare services to homegrown charities rather than distant bureaucrats. Local "lead agencies" receive multimillion-dollar bloc grants to administer services in one to five counties. Those agencies, in turn, parcel out contracts to dozens of charities within their region, then check up to ensure the money is being spent wisely.

In Florida, the new system has not been without problems of its own. Years after the rest of the state had complied with privatization orders, Miami-Dade, the state's largest and most troubled county, has yet to fully implement the program. And in central Florida, a private agency overseeing five counties has until mid-March to show it can live up to the terms of its $84 million contract. If the agency, Kid Central, fails to convince DCF it can adequately monitor and protect the children in its care, the state has threatened to yank its contract, causing potential chaos for hundreds of foster families in the region.

Despite the kinks, local service providers give the new initiative generally high marks. The critics of community-based care "tend to be against privatization of any kind," says Daniel Lamb, South Florida Administrator for Florida Baptist Children's Homes. FBCH accepts some 200 children a year in its South Florida facilities, some 90 percent of whom are referred by the state. With homes in both Broward and Miami-Dade counties, Mr. Lamb can compare the system in one county where privatization has been fully implemented and one where it has not.

"There are some initial signs of progress" in Broward compared to Dade, he says. "We're seeing more of a quality-control emphasis than what we had in the past." ChildNet, the lead agency for Broward County, "is holding providers to quality-assurance goals in order to continue funding"-something DCF was rarely able to do.

Thirty miles up the road in Ft. Lauderdale, Tom Lukasik is experiencing that quality control firsthand. The executive director of 4Kids has been holed up all morning with an audit team from ChildNet, the lead agency that supplies 60 percent of his annual budget. Now the auditors are headed into the field, checking up on 4Kids facilities sprinkled around the county.

As he pulls up in front of KidsPlace, a small group home for foster children, Mr. Lukasik says he appreciates the local oversight. "ChildNet does a more thorough audit than DCF ever did. DCF would kind of glance around and say, 'Yep, it all looks good to me.' ChildNet takes their time. They ask good questions. In this business, that kind of oversight is a good thing."

Inside KidsPlace, the two auditors chat easily with Roy and Ruth Ramos, former missionaries to Russia who have seen 55 children come through the house-six at a time-in the 16 months they've been there. In a few days the Ramoses will receive another visit, this one to re-license them as foster parents. By scheduling such visits close together, ChildNet seeks to minimize the disruption to foster families-something that was never a consideration when DCF was running the show directly.

Mrs. Ramos gives her visitors a quick tour, pointing out the six color-coded hand towels in the bathroom and the comforters that reverse from florals to checks if there are more boys than girls living in the house. In every room, visible symbols of 4Kids' mission are hard to miss: Two young girls do their homework at a table piled high with Bibles in various formats and translations. In the kitchen, where the Ramoses talk with their interviewers, Galatians 5:22-23 is stenciled above the sliding doors that lead to a backyard swimming pool.

Mr. Lukasik says the privatization effort has made it easier for faith-based organizations to work with the state. "Community-based care makes the system more responsive to our needs," he notes. "We know the Christians who work at ChildNet, so we know who to call if there's a problem"-a level of familiarity that would be impossible with faceless government employees in far-off Tallahassee.

Mr. Lukasik also appreciates ChildNet's willingness to depart from the way things have always been done. For instance, a child's point of entry into the foster-care system used to be an afterthought, as officials scrambled to find more permanent housing. But thanks to the success of SafePlace, every new child now spends at least his or her first day in Broward's welfare system under the supervision of caring Christians in a home-like environment. (Mr. Lukasik estimates that 8 percent to 10 percent of the children eventually find their way into long-term Christian foster homes or adoptive families.)

More innovations are yet to come, Mr. Lukasik promises. With a new grant from the Christian Community Foundation, 4Kids plans to establish a pilot program for teens transitioning out of the foster-care system. Currently, 18-year-olds "age out" of foster care with an $800 check and a pat on the back. 4Kids wants to help them with job training, mentoring, and housing as they get established on their own. Mr. Lukasik hopes the privately funded effort will eventually win a state contract, making it available to even more needy teens.

Mr. Lamb of Florida Baptist Children's Homes believes such faith-based efforts represent the future of the child welfare system. As more states privatize and localize their foster care, he thinks they will continue to reach out to church groups that provided such services long before the state got involved. (FBCH has helped nearly 25,000 children in its 101-year history.)

"The state absolutely has to have us at the table," he says. "They cannot function without the community, and a big part of any community is the faith-based component."

Bob Jones

Bob Jones