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Document language : en
Fla. DCF releases 1st foster care report card

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Fla. DCF releases 1st foster care report card

Published : Wednesday, 11 Jan 2012, 8:32 PM EST

MIAMI (AP) - Private contractors that receive hundreds of millions of dollars a year to oversee foster care in Florida scored poorly in ensuring proper medical, immunization and dental services for children, but ranked about average in most other areas, according to a report card issued Wednesday for the first time by the state child welfare agency.

The review is part of an effort to beef up oversight of the 20 providers that care for foster kids.

Since taking office in 2010, Department of Children and Families Secretary David Wilkins has repeatedly said improving accountability among the providers was a top priority and that he intended to include penalties for poor performance in the contracts going forward.

The report cards ranked providers based on a variety of safety factors, including how many foster homes a child has been placed in during the past year, whether children are being visited every 30 days by a caseworker, and abuse rates of children who receive services at home instead of being placed in foster care.

Health and education standards, such as whether foster children are regularly seeing doctors or getting their GED or high school diploma, are also included.

The contractors' overall performance was mostly above the state's benchmarks, according to the scorecard first obtained by The Associated Press. But the contractors ranked poorly in ensuring that children were receiving medical, immunization and dental services, scoring a total average of 74 percent, compared to the state standard of 90 percent. It's an area that many states struggle with, even though foster children have health insurance through Medicaid and the state often pays for the child's transportation to medical appointments.

The state, which pays providers about $750 million a year altogether to care for roughly 20,000 foster children, also mentioned administrative costs in the report. Critics object that some CEOs had salaries higher than Wilkins and give large staff bonuses. Administrative costs ranged from 3.3 percent at the Community Partnership for Florida to 12 percent at the Family Integrity Program.

Wilkins said the comparisons will provide new insight and raise the bar for all providers.

"What has happened in this state for far too long is they have been independently owned and operated and they don't get the benefit of that collaboration," he said.

After Florida lawmakers voted to privatize foster care about a decade ago, the state has seen a decrease in the number of children in care and an increase in adoptions.

The number of children in foster care dropped 28 percent, from 42,325 in 2000-01 to 30,541 during the 2010 fiscal year. Adoptions jumped from 2,008 in the 2000-01 fiscal year when the state was in charge to 3,368 in 2010.

But Wilkins has repeatedly said the contracts were written without any bite or actions the agency can take if officials feel a provider isn't meeting standards. Wilkins said he intends to include more stringent penalties for poor performance in the contracts going forward and the scorecards will be one benchmark to help measure that.

"I have the obligations to report to taxpayers the efficiency of these dollars ... if that upsets a few people that's OK," he said.

Child advocates largely agree the system is better since privatization, but the state agency and its contractors have struggled to agree on effective ways to measure that and show solid data to back it up.

Providers say they have been working with the state and welcome effective evaluations. But some worry the latest measurements are arbitrary and don't show the improvements they've made in increasing adoptions and reducing the number of children coming into the system through prevention services. The contractors also complained the agency didn't give them enough time to give their input on the new evaluations.

"We cannot rush developing a measure like this or unveil it hastily or it will be a perilous instrument that may provide incorrect information about how to better serve children and their families," said Mike Cusick, president and CEO of Florida Coalition for Children, an advocacy group representing the providers.

Critics say the state and its providers often finger-point when child deaths makes headlines.

The state came under fire last February after a 10-year-old girl was found dead in the back of her adoptive father's truck. Her brother survived, but was badly burned, after authorities said his father allegedly doused him in toxic chemicals. Her parents have pleaded not guilty to first-degree murder charges. Nubia Barahona's death was considered among the most horrific child deaths in Florida history and prompted agency changes, including the hiring of 80 new child protective investigators to help reduce caseloads.

The agency was criticized by some lawmakers after the child's death uncovered system-wide flaws in the agency. The report card was released during the first week of Florida's legislative session and some providers said it was politically timed.

Providers say some of the measurements on the new report card evaluate things that aren't part of their contracts.

Wilkins said he's taken the liberty to include new categories that historically weren't measured such as education benchmarks, but he stressed the report card is a "living document" that will change over time as new categories are added.

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