TALLAHASSEE - An analysis of the state's efforts to privatize child welfare services shows there have been some problems in the transition, but children are not worse off because of them.
It is still too soon to tell whether private nonprofit agencies will improve child welfare, concluded the report prepared by the University of South Florida.
"It takes time, it takes a lot of training, it takes quality assurance mechanisms that all the sites are putting in place," said Mary Armstrong, one of the report's authors. "We have found no indication that harm has been done in any of the indicators that we've looked at."
The state is in the process of converting its entire child welfare system to what it calls community-based care. The study, which will be released next week, examined programs operated by four providers in 12 counties.
The report's authors found that the longest-serving provider, Sarasota YMCA, has made substantial progress in improving care. It has provided services in Sarasota and Manatee counties since 1999. Elsewhere, however, providers had concerns that caseloads remain high and the state is not providing enough money for services.
Also, the department itself struggled somewhat in adjusting to its dual role of providing child welfare services and working with private agencies doing the same.
"It was felt that the DCF central office had not thought through many of its policies as they related to CBC (community-based care) and were in fact resisting the change," the report said.
The report noted, however, that the relationship between DCF and private providers has improved since Secretary Jerry Regier took over the department and that there is a recognition of special issues facing providers.
Among glitches during the transition are access problems private welfare workers are facing, including the inability to perform criminal background checks on employees in some cases.
The report praised providers' ability to use innovations to improve services, such as Hillsborough Kids Inc., which created a crisis intervention team that has had an 85 percent success rate in helping children who were not in immediate danger remain with their families.
And Families First Network, serving four Panhandle counties, is using coordinators to help adolescents make the transition to adult life outside the welfare system.