Florida labor and children’s advocates are opposing Florida Gov. Jeb Bush’s rush to privatize the state’s child protective services. Privatization is expected to hand over approximately $233 million in “community-based care” contracts to private groups.

The issue has emerged as a hot topic since the disappearance of a 5-year-old Miami girl while in foster care. The child, who was on the caseload of the state’s Department of Children and Families (DCF), has been missing for 16 months. Commenting on Bush’s appointment of a blue ribbon panel to study the problem, American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) Florida Council 79 Communications Director Doug Martin told the World, “The problem is not lack of information. The problem is bad policy and chronic underfunding.”

Child advocates say the state is rushing to privatize services even though existing privatized programs have produced very mixed results. In 1998, a 6-year-old girl was killed by her father after social workers for a private contractor and DCF missed warning signs that should have led to the child’s being placed in foster care.

More recently, DCF was forced to fire a private agency in Pinellas County that had nearly $5 million in state contracts, because of charges that the agency’s caseworkers failed to conduct interviews and complete forms as required.

According The Orlando Sentinel, a DCF review of privatized services in Pasco and Pinellas counties this year “found many of the same problems that existed when services were delivered by DCF.”

Karen Gievers, a lawyer for children in foster care, and president of Children’s Advocacy Foundation, based in Tallahassee, said, “Gov. Bush has made it very clear he’s going to privatize the core functions of DCF, regardless of the concerns.”

At a Tallahassee news conference earlier this year, the Florida state AFL-CIO said one of its chief priorities is increasing “protections for our public sector employees, who have been victimized by the loss of civil service protections and massive layoffs, due to privatization and budget cuts.”

The labor federation charged that under Jeb Bush “we have a civil service system that appears on the brink of destruction through massive layoffs and privatization, and yet the layoffs and private contracts keep coming.”

Martin called for an end to the state’s current headlong rush into “wasteful” privatization plans. “Florida has the most efficient state government in the country, costing less than $33 per taxpayer per year” he said. “Privatization is causing services to decline and administrative costs to skyrocket.” Martin said Gov. Bush’s efforts to blame systemic problems on state employees has led to declining morale among workers.

The Florida labor movement strongly opposes Bush’s re-election effort, but is divided in its gubernatorial primary endorsements. AFSCME is backing Janet Reno for the Democratic nomination, while the state AFL-CIO and Florida Education Association have endorsed Bill McBride. AFSCME Council President Jeanette Wynn said a key factor in their endorsement of Reno was her commitment to reforming Florida’s child and family services, rather than privatizing them.

The author can be reached at suewebb@pww.org


Susan Webb
Susan Webb

Susan Webb is a retired co-editor of People's World. She has written on a range of topics both international - the Iraq war, World Social Forums in Brazil and India, the Israel-Palestinian conflict and controversy over the U.S. role in Okinawa - and domestic - including the meaning of socialism for Americans, attacks on Planned Parenthood, the U.S. as top weapons merchant, and more.