A decade ago, amid perhaps the worst foster care debacle in state history, Florida lawmakers transferred all foster care and adoption efforts to private management — hoping local leaders could nurture what the state long could not: a scandal-free child welfare system.
But even as the Department of Children & Families’ top administrator is on the defensive over a series of recent child deaths, Secretary David Wilkins has become mired in a second front by launching an unprecedented effort to increase control over the local child welfare providers that were supposed to remain mostly autonomous.
The battle is not going well.
The first two community-based care lead agencies that were asked to sign contracts giving Wilkins new powers over hiring and operation have both balked, inspiring accusations that the secretary is mounting a hostile takeover.
“When the Legislature created the CBC [community-based care] model, it was the intent to have local communities run the child welfare system, since the state of Florida had failed many at-risk children by neglecting the very services these children and families require,” state Sen. Aaron Bean wrote in a June 5 letter to Wilkins on behalf of the Jacksonville group, called Family Support Services of North Florida. “In essence,” he added, “children were being lost.”
“I sincerely hope you understand the importance of maintaining the integrity of what the Legislature intended when the local…model was enacted over ten years ago,” added Bean, a Jacksonville Republican. “Since that time, the local CBCs have made tremendous progress.”
Wilkins insists he’s simply trying to impose greater oversight and improve performance.
“I wanted more accountability in our nonprofit contracts,” Wilkins told The Miami Herald. “I did not think it is fair to tax and allocate money on nonprofits that are not accountable for the outcomes associated with the contracts.”
By 2005, all 67 of Florida’s counties had shifted to the private management of foster care, licensing and adoption services. Statewide, 19 lead agencies — including Our Kids, which covers Miami-Dade and Monroe counties — manage contracts with scores of subcontractors totaling roughly $750 million in state and federal money each year.
The road has not always been smooth. A handful of lead agencies — which carry out all child welfare efforts in their local areas except child abuse investigations and legal affairs — were fired following highly publicized scandals. But with a few exceptions, the local groups have enjoyed far greater success than did the state.
Wilkins believes the improvements are a result of his efforts at scoring and ranking the groups’ performance on a host of criteria, and then distributing the results broadly. Over time, he said, the poor-performing groups have gotten better.
“Performance has gone up dramatically,” Wilkins said. “Accountability and competition do drive performance.”
Wilkins is clearly irritated by the opposition to his proposals, which, he says, are designed only to standardize contracting among the lead agencies and to increase oversight.
Among the clauses that have angered the local groups:
• A provision that gives DCF veto power over the hiring of top CBC executives. Wilkins said this provision is intended to prevent the “bait and switch” that sometimes goes on when local groups identify one person as the top executive, but then introduce someone entirely different as the top officer after the contract is signed.
“When you change leadership, we ought to have a vote,” Wilkins said.
• Another provision that allows DCF to impose new requirements and initiatives after the contracts are inked, without providing additional dollars. That clause, Wilkins said, is important because the secretary must have authority to develop new child welfare policies and implement them statewide. This year, for example, Wilkins is unveiling a new effort to dramatically bolster programs aimed at preventing child abuse.
Contrary to the CBCs’ claims, what the new contracts are not designed to do, Wilkins said, is re-centralize control over Florida’s child welfare system in Tallahassee.
“They’re saying we’re putting Tallahassee back in control,” Wilkins said. “Nothing in the contract takes away any authority or responsibility from the community.”
The local agencies don’t see it that way. And they accuse DCF of springing the changes on them long after their contracts had been negotiated — and then insisting they be signed anyway.
The programs in three Northeast Florida counties are at risk of expiring as lead agencies based in Jacksonville and Melbourne have yet to sign the new contract provisions. In Melbourne, the County Commission paid $1.2 million to create the Brevard Family Partnership, which the county still largely oversees.
“We have not been given the opportunity to negotiate any of the new terms and conditions of the revised standard contract,” Stockton Whitten, board chairman of Brevard Family Partnership and a deputy Brevard County manager, wrote in a May 24 letter.
Kurt Kelly, a former lawmaker who heads up the Florida Coalition for Children, an association of private child welfare providers, said his membership is eager to restore a sense of “collaboration” between DCF and the local groups it sired. But, he added, he expects the CBCs to remain unified in their opposition to the new contract language.
Kelly said he’s never heard of a child welfare nonprofit dangling a well-qualified chief executive at the state, only to substitute a lesser-qualified boss. “If Secretary Wilkins wants to come in and say he gets that choice, that’s a big problem for us,” Kelly said. “He’s building a policy on a straw man, and that just doesn’t work.”
Advocates of local control insist they already are accountable: to their boards of directors, which include civic and business leaders, doctors, lawyers and judges, to DCF, and to their communities, which had grown tired of endless foster care scandals.
Local ownership — not scorecards — has spawned the kind of innovation that propelled Florida’s foster care system into a national model, Kelly said. When lawmakers approved private management, the state was still reeling from some of the worst scandals in its history, including the disappearance and possible murder of then-5-year-old Rilya Wilson, whose state-approved Miami caregiver was convicted of kidnapping earlier this year, and still faces a retrial on murder charges.
“They had messed it up so bad the Legislature had to come in,” Kelly said. “We have gone from one of the worst to first, and we have a statute that protects what we do.”
“We don’t work for the secretary,” Kelly said. “We work with the secretary.”