ChildNet's miscues a disappointment

The mess at Broward County's ChildNet could be worse in only one way: It could involve harm to some of the 1,000-plus young charges of the private foster-care agency.

But so far, at least, the mounting problems involve job abuses -- charges of theft and fraud and unquali-fied workers -- but no child abuse. There could be more trouble ahead, though. The FBI served search warrants at ChildNet's offices this month but hasn't revealed its investigation's target.Acrimonious relations

The Department of Chil-dren & Families pays Child-Net $65 million a year to operate the county's foster-care system. ChildNet is one of 20 private agencies in the state created four years ago to take over Florida's troubled foster care. State-wide performance has been mixed, but ChildNet was considered one of the better agencies. Nevertheless, rela-tions between DCF and ChildNet have been acrimo-nious at times. In light of ChildNet's disappointing miscues, more accountabil-ity and transparency from these agencies are needed -- and DCF must sharpen its oversight without becoming overbearingly bureaucratic toward the pri-vate caregivers.

In testimony before the Florida Senate Children and Families Committee Tues-day, DCF Secretary Bob Butterworth blamed Peter Balitsaris, ChildNet's CEO until he was fired by the agency's board on April 13 after an internal investiga-

tion uncovered many irreg-ularities. "The CEO was not accountable. Every time we tried to get information, we were turned down. We were concerned they were not meeting the [standards] we were supposed to meet," Mr. Butterworth told the committee.

Could DCF have tried harder to obtain informa-tion? Perhaps. Certainly, though, ChildNet violated hiring standards. Two recently fired employees in charge of facilities manage-ment and security have extensive criminal records -- one was imprisoned for manslaughter. There are charges of theft of $6,000 in Wal-Mart gift cards intended for foster children and an agency computer that contained sensitive information. There are also suspicions that someone took kickbacks from an auto shop that didn't repair ChildNet vehicles it con-tracted to fix.CFO is fired

Personnel problems trav-eled around ChildNet's food chain. Its CFO, also fired by the board, is accused of sub-mitting falsified invoices to the DCF for illegal pay-ments. Some 20 ChildNet workers may have invalid or suspended driver licenses, disqualifying them from transporting children.

ChildNet, which had shown much promise, needs new professional leadership and a housecleaning. At the same time, the DCF needs to find the right oversight bal-ance for the foster care-givers -- as in vigilance but not oppression.