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    A Times Editorial

    Privatized neglect

    The rush to privatize Florida's child-welfare system already has led to a fiasco that compromised the protection of abused and neglected children.

    © St. Petersburg Times
    published March 17, 2002

    If state leaders needed any further evidence of the risks inherent in privatizing the child-welfare system, they are getting plenty from the fiasco involving the Florida Task Force for the Protection of Abused and Neglected Children.

    The task force, based in Pinellas Park, was hired by the state's Department of Children and Families in 2000 to investigate backlogged child-abuse cases. It has taken on that responsibility in several Florida counties, including Pasco, ever since. But DCF abruptly fired the group amid allegations that task force workers conducted shoddy safety checks, rushed investigations to meet quotas and falsified records. Accusations are still flying, with the task force portraying itself as DCF's scapegoat and at least one senator demanding the return of its sizable surplus.

    All this comes as DCF is in the middle of plans, mandated by lawmakers, to transfer its family supervision, foster care and adoption duties to community agencies by next year.

    The debacle puts DCF -- and, more important, the children it is supposed to protect -- in a serious bind in the short term. DCF workers, already badly overworked, will now have even more cases to review, many no doubt requiring reinvestigation. A recent internal audit, concluding that DCF was itself dangerously lax on some cases it later turned over to the task force, casts doubt as to whether DCF can safely handle the backlog on its own.

    However, the fiasco's long-term implications raise the most concern. If problems of this magnitude can occur on DCF's watch when privatization is still young -- and the number of privatized districts relatively low -- what will happen when even more communities make the switch? DCF acted quickly and decisively once these allegations surfaced, but that begs the question: Why weren't these problems uncovered earlier? As recently as last month, DCF was boasting to legislative auditors that "we (have) made so much progress in closing backlogged investigations."

    Full-scale privatization will demand, at a minimum, less back-patting and better monitoring. With urging from Sen. Walter "Skip" Campbell, D-Fort Lauderdale, lawmakers have mandated that DCF arrange an outside evaluation of all the private lead agencies with which it contracts. That's a wise first step, but it doesn't resolve concerns regarding the quality of long-term oversight.

    The alarming episode also shows the need for state leaders to set reasonable expectations and give providers the resources and time they need to do the job right. No one should excuse the cutting of corners by this or any other contractor, especially with the safety of children on the line. (The task force continues to deny wrongdoing.) But with enormous caseloads and, in most cases, limited dollars, the private agencies DCF selects to perform the state's work may feel similar pressures to take shortcuts.

    Child-welfare privatization obviously is not the panacea some advocates envisioned. It is showing good results in those counties that wanted the job and had time to prepare. But forcing it on unwilling communities or substandard providers puts the lives of Florida's children at grave risk. The state needs to move ahead with full-scale privatization very carefully -- or not at all.

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