Private child welfare agency under fire

After the most scandalous child death in a decade, chinks are beginning to show in the armor of the state’s largest
private provider of child welfare services, Our Kids.


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Miami-Dade’s 5-year-old privately run child welfare agency is paid $100 million each year to protect thousands of
abused and neglected children. But in recent months, it has been forced to defend itself.

Last summer, several children’s advocates became incensed when Our Kids, a private contractor that oversees
foster care and adoption in Miami-Dade and Monroe, paid more than $330,000 in employee bonuses – some totaling
five figures – at the same time it cut the stipend given to newly aged-out foster kids by $300.

Then, in February, an independent review panel criticized the agency for a series of missteps uncovered in the wake
of 10-year-old Nubia Barahona’s death. Bound, beaten and left for days in a bathtub, Nubia was found dead, stuffed
in a garbage bag, in the back of her adoptive father’s pickup truck. The panel accused Our Kids executives of
“circling the wagons,’’ rather than aiding their inquiry.

To the state’s most powerful lawmaker on social service issues, Sen. Ronda Storms, the lapses reflect system-wide
failings in Florida’s landmark move to shift all foster care and adoption programs over to private, local management.
Beginning almost a decade ago, lawmakers agreed to pay 20 “community based care’’ lead agencies throughout the
state more than $750 million to oversee most child-welfare services.

“When the state of Florida said we were not doing well with our child abuse and child welfare efforts, there were
people in the community who raised their hands and said, ‘We can do a better job’ — and by that they meant there
will be fewer dead bodies, better outcomes for children,’’ said Storms, a Valrico Republican who chairs the Children,
Families and Elder Affairs Committee.

Our Kids has its defenders, including Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Cindy Lederman, a 17-year veteran of the child-
welfare bench, who said the agency has delivered “accountability, innovation, professionalism and leadership. We
can never go back,” she added.


With 3,400 kids in their care and a $101 million budget, Our Kids —the largest private child welfare lead agency in
the state and one of the biggest in the United States — carries considerable clout. Three Our Kids officials, including
CEO Fran Allegra, were members of Gov. Rick Scott’s children and families transition team, and its board of trustees
reads like a who’s who of state politics, including Donna Arduin, former Gov. Jeb Bush’s budget director who was
tapped to lead Scott’s first budget team, and Carol Licko, one of Bush’s general counsels.

Our Kids’ troubles began in June, when advocates for older foster children started complaining about the $331,104
in bonus money Our Kids had paid to 85 employees. Figures just released show that, in 2010, the agency paid
$353,104 in bonus money to 95 employees, including $28,000 to a technology manager and $22,000 to the chief
financial officer.

Our Kids leaders insist their pay structure is reflective of — if not below — the salaries paid by other private child-
welfare agencies in Florida. Our Kids paid CEO Allegra $203,086 in total compensation in 2009. Broward County’s
ChildNet paid its top executive $195,500. The lead agency in Seminole paid its top executive $188,000, but its
budget is a fraction of Our Kids’ at $14.5 million.

Adam Goldstein, the president of Royal Caribbean International and past-chairman of Our Kids’ board, said he would
not have volunteered for the group if it did not recruit — and pay for — top talent.

“We have always felt strongly that if you want to make progress on the daunting terrain that is child welfare,’’ Golstein
said, “you need strong committed professionals to lead the effort.’’

In recent weeks, with the high-profile death of Nubia Barahona, the private agency’s problems moved beyond money.
An independent panel’s review of the death cited several criticisms of Our Kids, including:

•  Although multiple people, including a nurse practitioner, said Nubia and her twin brother weren’t getting proper
medical and dental care while living with the Barahonas as foster children before their adoption by the couple, Nubia’
s case record with an Our Kids subcontractor had little documentation of what health services she did and did not

•  Case managers with an Our Kids affiliate failed to inform psychologist Vanessa Archer of calls to the state’s child
abuse hotline suggesting the Barahonas were not fit to raise the twins, and never sought to amend Archer’s
psychological evaluation when it omitted the material in a report. The absence of that information bolstered the
couple’s case for adoption.

•  And although an attorney for the children’s lay guardian had raised the “very serious concerns’’ of educators that
Nubia was afraid of her foster mother, caseworkers waited five months before completing the court-ordered
psychological evaluation.

•  Though an oversight group, the Foster Care Review Panel had recommended Nubia be given mental health
therapy in light of her disclosure that she had thoughts of killing herself, her Our Kids foster care record doesn’t
show the therapy was given.

The report was not the end of it.

Within a week of the report’s release, Storms took aim at the state’s private-foster care agencies during her
committee’s first meeting


Storms raised concerns over legislation that would cap how much community-based care agencies could be liable for
when they make mistakes, including those that lead to child abuse and death. If passed, the law would shield them
under sovereign immunity in the same way state agencies are protected.

The House Civil Justice Committee voted 9-6 on Wednesday in support of a bill, and a similar provision is included in
a Medicaid reform bill moving in the Senate.

“You can’t have sovereign immunity if you don’t suffer the bright light of public scrutiny,” said Storms.
Community-based care leaders argue growing insurance premiums, without help, will force them out of existence. A
report commissioned last year by the industry said the state’s 20 lead agencies paid $2.75 million in liability
insurance last year with scores of subcontractors in the field paying “tens of millions of dollars’’ more.
For both agency leaders and advocates, though, the central issue remains quality of care. And Our Kids has
prominent child advocates saying they have seen improvements.

Two child welfare judges, Lederman and Circuit Judge Jeri B. Cohen, a 15-year veteran, say the caseworkers,
supervisors and support staff that Our Kids oversees have been quicker to respond to orders from the bench, easier
to work with, and more accountable than their DCF counterparts of five years ago. “While they are not perfect, and I
am not always in agreement with decisions by their board, I truly believe that Our Kids is motivated by an abiding
desire to protect children,” Cohen said.

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10-year-old Nubia Barahona