St. Petersburg Times Online: Business

Weather | Sports | Forums | Comics | Classifieds | Calendar | Movies

Maybe the Y has answers to help raise these kids

Published March 21, 2004

In the bad old days, there was HRS.

If you were an abused kid in Florida, or a foster kid, or a delinquent kid or a kid up for adoption, your life was controlled by HRS - the Department of Health and Rehabilitative Services.

HRS was the biggest, fattest, most inefficient and unhappy agency in the state government.

We finally "solved" the HRS problem by abolishing it in 1997 and spinning off the public health functions. As for family issues, we replaced HRS with other initials, the DCF - the Department of Children and Families.

Next, we decided it would be better to handle family matters through privatization. As you know, private business is better than government, no matter what.

Except, of course, that it isn't always better. The government might be a lousy substitute for a parent, but so is a contract.

We have just seen in Pinellas and Pasco counties how it is possible for this approach to fail. The private outfit that was supposed to do all this work is leaving, under a mutual agreement with the state.

That outfit was called Family Continuity Programs Inc. The state didn't give the program enough money, but FCP bungled the job plenty by itself. Its people couldn't take the caseloads. They panicked, overran their $37-million budget, and finally they punted.

During all this, the DCF was constantly critical of the private outfit, blaming it for crowded foster homes and poor casework.

But it would take a short memory not to remember that the state was just as screwed up when it did the work. So the DCF should not score any points for being an excellent scold.

What happens now?

Now, things might get better, thanks to some help from the south. The work in Pinellas and Pasco will be taken over by the Sarasota Family YMCA, which has proven itself in this field in other counties.

Not only is the YMCA doing the job in Sarasota, Manatee and DeSoto counties, but it has been a training ground for some of the folks running similar privatization efforts in Hillsborough (Hillsborough Kids Inc.), which in turn has provided leadership for Citrus and Hernando (Kids Central Inc.).

What's the difference between failure and success?

Lee Johnson, executive vice president of the YMCA, refuses to criticize Family Continuity Programs. But he says the YMCA's work would be impossible without a heavy involvement from the community.

"That includes everything from having community partners who actually provide the services," Johnson says, "to volunteers, to organizations or corporations that want to get involved in sponsoring parts of our program."

For example, the Sarasota Family YMCA went out and arranged corporate "sponsors" for individual foster shelters. "They take care of the kids' birthdays," Johnson says. "They take care of major holidays for the kids there at the time."

"We have reproduced the kind of results the state has always dreamed of," Johnson says. "It means opening your arms to the community, being accountable, having the community wrap its arms around the kids."

The YMCA is holding a series of community meetings to hear from people and organizations. The next one in Pinellas will be from 9 a.m. to noon Thursday at the Criminal Justice Center, 14250 49th St. N, in Clearwater.

There will be west and east Pasco meetings. The west meeting will be 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Monday at The Harbor Administrative Offices, 7809 Massachusetts Ave., room 179, in New Port Richey. The east meeting will be 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Friday at Sunrise of Pasco County, 12724 Smith Road (State Road 52 and Smith Road), in Dade City.

Despite the new faces in charge, the old problems have not magically disappeared - not the problems of our society and not the skinflint response of our political system. When I talked to Johnson, he was in Tallahassee, trying to explain to the Legislature that by any fair allocation of money, Pinellas-Pasco is getting the short end of the stick.

But the approach of the Sarasota Family YMCA sounds better than what we've had, for sure. If the old choice was between "like government' and "like a business," maybe we are getting around to trying to care for these kids . . . like a community.

© Copyright, St. Petersburg Times. All rights reserved.