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Panel Stresses Accountability for Community-Based Care Agencies

Senate Children, Families and Elder Affairs Chair Eleanor Sobel

The Senate panel charged with reforming Florida's child-welfare system rolled out its latest proposals this week — including increased accountability for the state's 19 community-based care lead agencies.

The proposal comes after a string of children's deaths last year and would require the state Department of Children and Families to develop an "outcome-based accountability system" for child welfare, reporting findings annually to the governor and the Legislature.

Offered by the Senate Children, Families and Elder Affairs Committee, the proposal would require the department to "clarify financial parameters and controls" for the privatized community-based care lead agencies, known as CBCs. The agencies receive $769 million a year from the state — 99 percent of their funding — to provide adoption, foster care and case-management services. They've been hoping lawmakers will increase that funding amount during the upcoming legislative session.

"We as CBCs have done a pretty poor job of educating you folks about what we do," Stephen Spivey, a retired judge who chairs the board of Kids Central Inc. in Ocala, told lawmakers Tuesday. "Hopefully, we'll have some beneficial input to further drafts along the way."

Overall, lawmakers said, the privatized community-based care system has improved child protection in Florida since it went statewide in 2002. Adoptions are up. There are fewer foster-care placements and more in-home services. It doesn't take as long for children to find permanent homes.

"Florida went from worst to first, thanks in large part to the CBCs," said Sen. Alan Hays, R-Umatilla.

And there was no disagreement that the law establishing the community-based care system should be revised because much of it is out of date.

"We have already been working with a House member and a Senate member on the rewrite of the statute," said former lawmaker Kurt Kelly, now CEO of the Florida Coalition for Children, which represents the community-based care agencies. "We agree that the statute is convoluted and it needs to get cleaned up, take out old language and modernize it and update it. ... The devil becomes in the details of what's been put back in."

The community-based care law requires the Department of Children and Families to contract with a single community-based provider in each area. The lead agency, in turn, administers the services, often subcontracting them. The state transfers all child-welfare resources to the agency, and in exchange, the agency takes responsibility for serving all children in the region who need care.

But lawmakers take a dim view of the fact that several community-based care agencies have gone under, requiring the transition of their services to new providers. Two of the closures left debts of $2.5 million and $3.5 million, which the taxpayers covered.

That's partly why the Senate committee's proposal would require CBC lead agencies to offer adequate reserves or performance bonds in the event of closure.

Kelly said the department has plenty of opportunities to help floundering providers, but "sometimes they've just said, ‘We don't like who you are, and let's pull the con­tract.'"

He added that when a lead agency is in trouble, other CBCs can help.

"We want to make sure that all of them are successful, but if they're not being successful, and they're going to get fired, then we should be going in early and not letting their finances get out of kilter," Kelly said.

Other representatives of the lead agencies said they already have to jump through too many hoops.

"As I began to review the proposed legislation last night, I'll be honest — my initial impressions were ‘new bureaucratic layers of red tape,'" said John Cooper, chief executive officer of Kids CentralInc, and a former Department of Children and Families assistant secretary.

The agencies also objected to a provision that would revise local community alliances to give the alliances more "involvement and oversight of the child welfare system."

The community alliances consist of local child welfare leaders and activists. The alliances don't have staff or receive funding and are engaged in differing degrees around the state.

Senate Children, Families and Elder Affairs Chairwoman Eleanor Sobel, D-Hollywood, said the alliances would "enhance local control" and "be the eyes and ears of the CBCs."

But Spivey said the lead agencies "don't need the community alliances to tell us what to do. We know what we need to do, and we're doing it."

The lawmakers and the agencies agreed to keep talking about the proposal, with more CBC input at future meetings.

Kelly said they'd be watching for unintended consequences of changing the law.

On the care side, we are doing a very good job," he said. "And so we're going to look at that area and make sure there's nothing unintended."

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