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The Florida State Department of Children and Families (DCF) spent $27.5 million on five pilot programs set up to privatize child welfare services from 1997-2000. Even though four of the five pilots failed, Florida is forging ahead with a statewide plan to privatize foster care and all related services into Community-Based Care (CBC) programs.

Of the five pilots, two were not successful and had their contracts terminated. One pilot dropped out of the experiment. The for-profit virtually disappeared from public records and there is no further information on whether there were costs associated with it. Sarasota County is the only original pilot still in operation.

Sarasota County’s success is unique. Experienced and active community stakeholders and agencies were involved in the project from the beginning. Sarasota is one of the wealthiest counties in Florida, with residents who contribute substantial amounts of time and money to their community. This program spent 70 percent more on personnel than DCF in order to reduce caseloads. In addition, the county has fewer children. As a result, comparisons to other programs are not accurate.

Despite the fact that four out of the five original pilot projects were failing, the Florida Legislature mandated in 1998 that foster care and all related services be privatized throughout the state between January 2000 and December 2002. This legislation required that DCF contract with a single community-based provider in each area – a lead agency that administers services. The state transfers all resources associated with child welfare to the agency and, in return, the agency assumes responsibility for serving all children within the area who need care. The lead agency is responsible for caseload and cost increases. Sarasota transitioned into a lead agency.

Government reports — Progress Report: Child Protection Program Makes Needed Changes but Lacks Data for Evaluating Results of Initiatives and Special Report: DCF’s Lead Agency Readiness Assessment Process Meets Statutory Requirements but Needs Strengthening — show that even the state’s own researchers couldn’t find evidence showing that privatization is better for the children of the state of Florida than a publicly-run child welfare system.

Florida recently released another Progress Report on programs for children and families, including child welfare services. Some of the major accomplishments, including increasing the percentage of investigations completed within 60 days and reductions in investigation backlogs, were tasks performed by public employees. The report highlights a reduction in child welfare caseloads, but a Florida statue mandates caseload size.

There is no evidence proving that privatization is better for Florida’s children than the public child welfare system it is replacing. The state’s own Office of Program Policy Analysis and Government Accountability’s reports acknowledged early on that several states, including Illinois and Kansas, suffered problems after privatizing child welfare services.

The problems in Florida’s experiment continue to escalate. A former lead agency administrator for Volusia and Flagler counties recently filed a whistleblower lawsuit against the lead agency, alleging in her wrongful discharge lawsuit that children were put in dangerous situations and counselors did not get adequate training. In February 2004, the DCF put the Family Continuity Programs in Pinellas and Pasco Counties on a provisional license for overcrowding in foster care and lack of supervisory oversight.

After eight years, millions of dollars and numerous studies, there is no evidence that privatized child welfare has made life any better for Florida’s most vulnerable citizens or for taxpayers. The problem of ensuring the health, safety and well being of children in the child welfare system is complex. And there is no evidence that Florida’s continuing rush toward privatization will improve its child welfare system.

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