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Face to Face: A Conversation with Peter Balitsaris
The president and CEO of Child-Net discusses how well privatization has worked for foster care services in Broward County.
Q. Community-based care got off to a controversial start, but it's produced ChildNet, which now runs child-welfare services. How's it going?
A. It's going very well. The numbers show that we're getting kids in adoptions, in permanent homes, quicker and safer.
Q. Did you foresee this idea of privatizing child-abuse and foster-care programs working this well?
A. I hoped that it would work as well as it had. There didn't seem to be much hope for real reform to the way the thing was set up previously.
There was no transparency. No one knew what was going on. Confidentiality was used to hide problems. Systems were underfunded, and people were so set in their ways in doing things that it took radical change to improve things.
So it made sense. I'm just glad that it turned out as well as it had.
Q. What are the factors that made it work out?
A. We have enough money to do the job. We sat down and figured out what we had to do to run this agency and figured out what it would cost. So we knew the number that we had to have when negotiating with the state. No matter how well you manage it, if you're grossly underresourced, it isn't going to work.
The other thing is we have a lot more flexibility than the state had. We could get away from a lot of the paperwork and bureaucracy that wasn't necessary.
We also had the support of the community.
Q. What sets ChildNet apart from other community-based care programs in the state?
A. The main thing is that we have wide and deep involvement from the community. Our board of directors, for example, isn't made up solely of people from the child-welfare industry. They're independent business and professional people and it's their support that allowed us to negotiate hard with the state to get the resources we need.
Q. Tell us a little bit about the youngsters you serve.
A. The kids we take care of are from age zero to 18. They come into our system because they've been abused, abandoned or neglected. Foster care is an emergency short-term solution to keep a child safe until we can put them into a permanent loving home that is as close to a natural family as we can. Most kids go back to their biological parents.
Some kids who have been severely abused or bounced around have behavioral issues, but some people exaggerate that. Most of our kids are normal healthy kids who have had some bad breaks in terms of the parents they drew in the lottery.
Q. I'd imagine your organization has its work cut out for it in dispelling any lingering stereotypes surrounding foster kids.
A. You run into it in a lot of places. We've seen school principals who don't want our kids in their schools because they think they will harm the school environment. That's silly. That's not fair.
Q. I remember one criticism we used to hear from conservatives when the Florida Department of Children & Families ran foster care and that was that government bureaucracies can't make good parents. In a way, you're a form of the old DCF program. What makes you a better parent?
A. First of all, we're not the parents. We put these children with parents, whether it's foster parents or their own biological parents. We care for them. We counsel them. We make sure they're safe and give them the things they need to advance in life. But, we're not their parents.
What makes us different than the government to a very large extent is that we are able to focus on the best interests of the child. We are able to avoid lots of distractions.
In the old DCF situation, every time there was a crisis anywhere in the state, you'd get an emergency telegram that would say have your supervisors rush out there and look at every child in the system to make sure that they are where they're supposed to be and that everything's all right. After the Rilya Wilson situation, there were a lot of directives like that. Instead of being able to do your work, you were rushing to meet a crisis.
We don't do that. We try to let people do their jobs, rather than responding to somebody's concern that they'll have a bad headline somewhere. It makes a big difference.
Q. Without those type of distractions, what are the issues or concerns that you are grappling with?
A. Well, we've closed a large number of foster homes that were not as good as they could have been, should have been. That's left us with the job of working with our community partners to recruit better foster homes. The same is true with group homes. We need to raise the bar across the board. For our own frontline workers who we call "child advocates," we've got to free them up from meaningless paperwork so they can spend more time with the families. That's what their job is, supposedly.
Q. DCF may have wanted to do the same thing, but couldn't. What do you have going for you that gives you that leeway?
A. It's still hard to recruit people to handle some populations of kids. The minority number of kids that do have serious behavioral problems are difficult to deal with. They're not everyone's cup of tea. So we have the same problems, but we've been able to develop a pretty healthy and collegial relationship with our provider agencies. They understand that we're interested in doing what's best for the children, and so are they. So, I think we get a high level of cooperation. We do the case work. Our child advocates manage the process, but the services in homes are all provided by other community organizations under contract. It's not just us. There are a bunch of organizations involved in the process. Some of them have stepped up because we have a good relationship with them. For example, we have been able to move the girls from Brown Schools to a different places.
Q. Has the pitch changed much from your predecessors when it comes to attracting foster parents?
A. Well, we have contracts with groups to do that, like the Children's Home Society. We don't do that directly ourselves. There have been efforts in the past, especially using advertising like billboards. It gets you a lot of phone calls, but it doesn't get you a lot of foster parents. We get foster parents from networking with other foster parents. Foster parents recruit other people to do it, or people see them doing it. They find the idea appealling and eventually do it themselves. The other way is to outreach through churches. That's where the people are that care.
Q. Next year, the budgetary process with the state begins again. Any concerns given the upcoming changes in the governor's office and in the Broward County Legislative Delegation?
A. Oh yeah. We sat through the two months of the legislative session in the condition of sheer torture for fear of that we would lose some of our funding. We're funded better than most districts. For the last several years, there was a provision in the appropriations bill that we would be held harmless. They've been bringing the other agencies with less money up rather than bringing us down. Even the other agencies support the idea of being held harmless. They realize that pulling us down doesn't help them come up. We have the support of the people, even the ones underfunded. Still, there's a concern for maintaining a united community that we can call on to talk to legislators to make sure our delegation and public is behind us. Or else, we can get unfunded.
Q. You have other sources of funding, like the Children's Services Council. Can those sources supplement state government funding and reduce the reliance on Tallahassee to operate the program?
A. Well, the Children Services Council made a pledge to the voters that they would not become a substitute for state monies. They have helped us with pilot projects, but it's not their role to replace state dollars for day-to-day operations. The fact is it's very hard to raise money for day-to-day operations. It's easier to get funds for time specific projects, like building a new library. The amount of money involved in the intangiblity of the product makes it very hard to raise operating funds. We can enhance the system but we can't replace the state dollars. Potentially, that puts us in a terrible quandary because we won't run a bad system. If we don't have the resources to run it right then we won't do it. Hopefully, the state will continue to raise [funding for] those programs at the lower end of the scale to the point where the state is adequately funding child-welfare programs, which it should be doing anyway.
Q. This question may sound a bit silly, but why should the community care about these kids?
A. Well because they're children who need help. I think a lot of people feel frustrated that they don't feel like they can directly involve themselves into this big bureaucracy that stands between them and helping the children. But, no one wants to see a child be hurt or neglected. Hopefully with community-based care, the solution and those people can get closer together and they can be more actively involved. For those individuals who do care and have the time, they should consider becoming a Guardian Ad Litem.
Q. Explain what that is.
A. Guardian Ad Litems are volunteers. They aren't lawyers necessarily who are appointed to follow child-welfare cases and report to the court. Is the child safe? Is the child getting what he or she needs? Anytime we can get another set of eyes on the children, it's a good thing. I was a guardian, and you can truly make a difference.
Q. There's emphasis on the problems. What about the success stories of foster care?
A. The things that get reported are the tragedies, the bad things that happen. You have children who are not being properly cared for and in some cases are being actively abused by their parents. Taking them out of that situation and putting them in a loving environment is a good thing. But, we have children, older children who have aged out of the system, come back and tell us that we saved their life. They were going nowhere and caught up in a family situation that was intolerable. Now, I'm finishing high school and expect to go to college, and the foster-care system did that. We have far more happy endings than the other kind.
Q. What successes have you had in adoptions?
A. Adoptions have been up during the past few years. They went up the year before we took over from DCF. Essentially, it's a matter of focusing on the issue. Part of it was the [state] agency addressing the backlog. Part of it was that we had a judge who only did adoptions. Now we expect the numbers to go down a bit because they've cleared up the backlog and there are fewer children who need to be adopted.
Q. What should we look for to see how well ChildNet is handling child-welfare cases?
A. We instituted a third-party review of our programs. A consulting group from outside the area comes in and conducts an extensive review of our system. We did that because we didn't want people relying on us to report about ourselves. We have a website and people who want to see how we're doing can see the results of those studies which we do twice a year. We recently had a visit from DCF Secretary Lucy Hadi. She was very complimentary, describing us as an example of how community-based care should operate. As long as we have the support of the community, there's no reason to believe that we shouldn't continue to operate successfully.
Interviewed by Senior Editorial Writer Douglas C. Lyons
Peter Balitsaris is president and CEO of ChildNet, Inc., the nonprofit agency that handles foster-care programs in Broward County. Prior to joining ChildNet, Balitsaris established the South Florida operation for developer Liberty Property Trust in Boca Raton as the company's regional vice president. His 30-year executive career spanned the roles of president of Legg Mason Real Estate Services, senior partner of Rouse and Associates and executive vice president of the Home Owners Warranty Corporation. He was the prime negotiator for ChildNet's first contract from the state of Florida.