Foster care contract canceled

Published March 31, 2007

The private agency that supervises nearly 3,000 foster children in Hernando and surrounding counties canceled its contract with a Brooksville subcontractor this month, giving it 60 days to find new case managers for 1,200 children.

Kids Central Inc., the community-based provider hired by the Division of Children and Family Services to oversee foster care and adoption, canceled its $6.6-million contract with The Harbor Behavioral Healthcare Institute in Brooksville.

As a result, the Grove Road facility, part of the Bay Care Health System, will lay off approximately 80 people, said John Sheehan, vice president of behavioral health services for BayCare.

Sheehan said Kids Central's financial problems led to the cancellation.

But Lynn Routh, spokeswoman for Kids Central, said, "It is not about money. That is not true." Routh said performance issues led to the cancellation.

In 2004, DCF moved to privatized foster care, and established Kids Central Inc. as the lead agency in District 13, which includes Citrus, Hernando, Lake, Marion and Sumter counties.

The Department of Children and Family Services paid Kids Central $43.8-million this year to oversee the 2,946 children in state care in District 13. Kids Central then subcontracts to a network of local providers, like The Harbor.

The Harbor supervised foster care and protective supervision in Hernando County since 2004, and in Citrus County since 2005. In 2006, The Harbor took over foster care recruitment and foster home supervision for Citrus and Hernando counties, which Kids Central brought back in-house in January.

Sheehan said that in mid February Kids Central asked The Harbor to lay off 55 of its approximately 81 staffers, so Kids Central could reduce the cost of The Harbor's contract and help Kids Central avert a "financial crisis."

If The Harbor said no, Kids Central threatened to cancel its contract, Sheehan said.

Sheehan said cutting two-thirds of The Harbor staff would have left caseworkers handling 35 to 40 cases each, nearly double the standard of 18 to 20 cases. That would have put children and families at risk, he said.

The Harbor refused the cuts, and countered with an offer of 19 layoffs. Kids Central offered a compromise of 35, but that still left The Harbor dangerously short staffed, and The Harbor said no. "We kind of drew a line," Sheehan said.

The negotiations reached an impasse until The Harbor said that an unexpected infusion of cash from the state meant Kids Central could accept the cut of 19 positions. Kids Central sent a contract amendment to The Harbor that would have saved it approximately $350,000, Sheehan said.

But as soon as The Harbor received the amendment, Kids Central canceled The Harbor's contract on March 19. Sheehan said it had nothing to do with case management performance.

Routh disagreed. Care agencies throughout the district had been asked to cut some costs as early as last August because they were over budget. But that was not the reason Kids Central severed its relationship with The Harbor.

"We canceled the contract because we were having concerns about the case management performance at The Harbor, so we decided to cancel the contract in the best interests of the children and families we serve," she said. "Our first concern is always for the families."

She declined to go into detail, saying she didn't want to see the situation get "ugly."

The Harbor has until May 18 to transition its cases to Camelot Community Care in Hernando County and The Centers in Citrus County, Routh said.

Kids Central, as the lead agency, handles its contract obligations without intervention of DCF, said spokesman Tim Bottcher.

"KCI alone decides who provides the services. Again, our concern is that the children receive quality care."

Kids Central's early tenure was plagued with problems, including some notorious cases of abuse. In 2004, Arthur "Tommy" and Lori Allain were accused of starving and abusing their foster children. They were convicted of starving one child in 2006. Two years ago, DCF expressed concerns about mounting case loads, limited funds and falling adoption rates. Those problems were remedied, officials said later.

In January, Kejerald Jackson, another foster parent, was charged with molesting several boys in his care.

Sheehan said the incident had nothing to do with the contract cancellation.

Bottcher expressed confidence in Kids Central. "We are pleased with KCI's performance in caring for children. Their performance has greatly improved over the past year and continues to improve."

Times researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Asjylyn Loder can be reached at aloder@sptimes.com or 352754-6127.