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Foster care problems continue

The cost per child and the frequency of abuse both have increased as the system has become privatized, a state audit concludes.

Published June 20, 2006

TALLAHASSEE - The cost of privatizing the state's foster care system has soared in recent years and a higher percentage of children are being repeatedly abused, according to a state audit released Monday.

The Department of Children and Families, which oversees the foster care program, has struggled to identify or fix underlying contributors to poor performance, the Office of Program Policy Analysis and Government Accountability said in its 28-page audit.

Nearly one in nine foster children suffered recurring abuse in fiscal year 2004-05, compared with fewer than one in 12 in 1998, it said.

DCF Secretary Lucy Hadi said the agency "generally concurs" with the audit's findings.

The audit compared data for the child welfare system from fiscal year 1998-99 - the year before the state's transition to the private sector - to 2004-05, the first year all contracts were held by community-based agencies.

During that time, the per child cost to taxpayers has gone up an average of 10.59 percent a year - or almost 70 percent over the six years when adjusted for inflation.

But case managers were paid less. Certified counselors started at $31,089, while their noncertified counterparts began at $29,679, less than what their state counterparts are paid.

Foster parents also expressed frustration with low payment rates, poor information about children and poor communication with case managers and providers.

The system did produce improvements, doubling the number of foster kids being adopted, the audit noted. The Legislature also came up with an additional $20-million this year to address some of the issues.

Auditors were limited to a degree, since the DCF does not require private providers to report their administrative costs, ranging from rent and utilities to management salaries.

"Success is never complete," DCF spokesman Tim Bottcher said. "We're going to continue to work with our contractors and community-based providers to look for ways to continually improve the program."

[Last modified June 19, 2006, 22:12:22]

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