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Children's services still lag

The group that helps foster children says it's making progress, but funding is inadequate.

By JOSE CARDENAS
Published March 13, 2007


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By some measures, the community-based coalition that cares for 3,500 foster children in Pinellas and Pasco counties is not living up to performance goals set by its contract with the state.

After reviewing the work of the nonprofit Safe Children Coalition, the Florida Department of Children and Families concluded that:

- Too many children were moved twice or more within a year.

- Not enough children were reunited with their families within a year of their latest removal.

- Not enough adoptions became final within two years.

The Safe Children Coalition is a collection of subcontracted agencies that manage cases, facilitate adoptions and provide other services. The lead agency in the coalition is the Sarasota YMCA North.

The department placed the coalition on a "corrective action plan" at the end of the first quarter in September. It's a step that could lead to the loss of contracts if problems are not addressed.

But Safe Children is making progress, said Lee Johnson, an executive vice president with the Sarasota YMCA North.

"I'm not saying we're there yet," he said. "Maybe by the end of the contract ... we'll get there."

By December, the YMCA had raised its numbers for adoptions and children reunited with their families, Johnson said.

The 22 community-based care agencies that manage child welfare services for the state have yearly contracts that require them to meet targets in eight performance measures.

The YMCA North was deficient in three of the eight. As of December it ranked 17th among all agencies in overall performance.

It's not unusual for a private agency to lag in one or more performance areas. State records show that in October all but one of the 22 agencies in the state were in the "red" zone in at least one performance measure.

Fourteen have been asked to submit corrective action plans in the last six months, said Erin Geraghty, a Department of Children and Families spokeswoman.

The state uses the plans to make sure agencies hired as part of the privatization of child welfare services meet performance targets.

"We view corrective action plans as an important tool for improvement," Andy Ritter, a Department of Children and Families spokesman, said in an e-mail. "... There can be need for concern, depending on the nature of any deficiencies."

One example of what the YMCA North is doing in its corrective action plan is training foster parents to deal with children's behavior problems to avoid removing kids.

* * *

A hurdle to achieving its goals, according to Johnson and other child welfare advocates in Pinellas, is inadequate funding.

At the start of the this year's contract, the Sarasota YMCA North's base budget of $40.5-million averaged out to about $10,300 per child in its care.

By comparison, the statewide average for all agencies is $12,500 per child.

But comparing the 22 agencies on factors that include populations of children and number of abuse reports in their area, the YMCA North is the most under-funded, Johnson said. He said the agency is short $5.5-million and pays case workers the second least in the state.

"They are unable to maintain the standards set by the state," said Gay Lancaster, executive director of the Juvenile Welfare Board of Pinellas County. "They have high staff turnover. They are underpaid."

* * *

But budget woes don't appear to explain it all.

The Sarasota YMCA is also the lead agency in a separate contract to take care of 1,100 children in Sarasota, Manatee and DeSoto counties.

The budget for the YMCA South averages out to just under $18,000 per child - the most in the state. Yet, that agency also is on a corrective action plan. The agency ranks second to last in performance in the state.

By contrast, the best-performing agency is Nassau County Board of Commissioners' whose budget averages out to $10,250 per child - the least in the state.

* * *

A possible solution to better funding for the YMCA North, Johnson said, may be a new proposed allocation formula being promoted by the 22 agencies.

The formula would be a way to dish out any new money above the $606.5-million disbursed to the agencies last year. The proposed formula weighs prevalence of abuse in an agency's region, its workload, efficiency and the cost of hiring people.

Given the values weighed in the proposed formula, 15 of the agencies that have been determined to be underfunded would be first in line to claim any new money. The formula, which so far has only been presented to a House committee, could give the Sarasota YMCA North up to $5.5-million - the most of any agency.

* * *

Not everyone has bought into the proposed formula, said Rep. Aaron P. Bean R-Fernandina Beach, who chairs the Health Care Council.

In recent years, legislators have tried to close the amount-per-child gap between the agencies by allocating any new money to those under the state budget.

But the proposed new formula would not give the most weight to who is getting the least per child. If approved, two agencies that are still below the state-average - including Hillsborough Kids, whose amount per child is $10,300 - are not considered underfunded and would be last in line to get any of the new money. Five that are above the average would have priority.

"A lot of folks feel there is a great deal of inequity," Bean said. "This (formula )does not address the inequity situation."

Jose Cardenas can be reached at jcardenas@sptimes.com or (727) 445-4224.

Fast Facts:

Areas of concern

The Sarasota YMCA North was placed on a corrective action plan in September for not meeting performance standards in three of eight areas measured by the state:

FOSTER CHILD PLACEMENTS

State standard: At least 87 percent of children should have no more than two placements a year.

YMCA performance: 66 percent of children had no more than two placements a year.

FAMILY REUNIFICATION

State standard: At least 76 percent of children should be reunited with their families within 12 months of their last removal.

YMCA performance: 53 percent.

ADOPTIONS

State standard: 32 percent of adoptions should be final within two years.

YMCA performance: 22 percent.

[Last modified March 12, 2007, 22:14:08]


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