Robin Jensen, Making Profits From Children’s suffering?

By KATHLEEN CHAPMAN

Palm Beach Post Staff Writer

Compassion is meeting capitalism as big companies move into the business of caring for children and the poor in Florida.

Since the state privatized its foster-care system, it has been at the vanguard of a national trend in outsourcing social services once monopolized by government and charities.

Providence Service Corp., an Arizona for-profit corporation traded on the Nasdaq, now cares for 2,000 abused or neglected children in Palm Beach County and the Treasure Coast.

The company operates here under the name of a subsidiary, Family Preservation Services of Florida Inc., and has amassed millions in state contracts. In Southwest Florida, a nonprofit agency managed by Providence oversees the region’s network of services for children in state care.

Corrupshine State

Providence does the work once handled by the Department of Children and Families, finding homes for the state’s foster children and helping them toward adoption or reunion with their biological families. Social workers, once eligible for state pensions and union membership, now have stock options and 401(k)s.

Providence runs programs for children, welfare recipients, juvenile offenders and struggling families in 24 states and the District of Columbia. Company leaders say they are improving on state-run social services while making a modest profit.

But some critics are uneasy about the company’s involvement in Florida foster care. They worry that shareholders will demand higher earnings, forcing Providence to make cuts in programs for the most vulnerable children.

Others don’t understand how any contractor can make much money in the difficult field of social work. Nonprofit agencies in some parts of the state are struggling to break even, they say.

“If you can make a profit on anything we are doing, then that means we are doing something wrong,” said Evelyn Lynn, R-Ormond Beach, a member of the Senate Committee on Children and Families. “Because it’s not going to the children.”

Evelyn Lynn

Others, even some who have reservations about for-profit companies, say Providence should be judged by its performance.

“One thing is clear,” said Andrea Moore, executive director of the statewide advocacy group Florida’s Children First. “Things couldn’t continue the way that they were. Because they were only getting worse.”

Providence founder and CEO Fletcher McCusker said he hopes to gain business in Florida wherever invited. Company President Boyd Dover moved to Clearwater in 2004 to oversee operations and expansion here.

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