The yearlong battle over a government contract to provide foster-care services in South Florida has come to an end — and so has the current provider. After a decade of overseeing the welfare of vulnerable children in Miami-Dade and Monroe Counties, the nonprofit Our Kids will lay off more than 160 employees and permanently shut down operations at the end of the month.
The layoffs mark the end of a bitter selection process between Our Kids and its competitor, Citrus Health. At stake was a five-year, half-billion-dollar deal with the Florida Department of Children and Families to administer foster-care services for 3,000 children in need.
Child welfare in Florida is mostly handled by private contractors. Our Kids had won the past two contracts in the Miami area, allowing the nonprofit to become the largest provider of child welfare services in the state.
Our Kids began advising its employees in early April that business dealings with the state would likely end. Later that month, an email obtained by New Times shows CEO Michael Williams confirmed to staff that the current five-year contract with DCF would expire June 30; he told employees 162 positions would be terminated as a result.
Of those 162 employees, 144 were offered positions to work with Citrus Health, according to the email. Eighteen people did not receive such offers, however, and an additional nine weren’t interested in continuing with the new lead agency. Our Kids employees are not unionized and do not appear to have any legal recourse. The organization did not respond to a request for comment from New Times.
The former Our Kids staffers should be an asset to Citrus Health, which has no experience in child welfare. The Hialeah-based nonprofit was initially chosen to take over the new contract last summer, before DCF's selection team was accused of having multiple conflicts of interest. Because several members had past ties to Citrus, the state was forced to scrap its initial selection process and start anew.
The fierce back-and-forth doubled as a tour of infamy for the two nonprofits. Our Kids fought to defend its record of poor service and rocky relationships with subcontractors, detailed in an examination conducted by DCF in 2017. Two recent child suicides under the organization's watch attracted national attention to South Florida’s broken foster-care system and caused a shakeup among Our Kids leadership, with some top administrators ending up at Citrus Health.
Citrus, meanwhile, is new to the world of foster care but has a long history of negligence at its mental-health facilities. In recent years, the nonprofit has faced allegations of sexual assault, as well as accusations of physically abusing teens by using restraints and injecting them with sedatives against their will.
Ultimately, DCF said it found no foul play in favor of Citrus while reviewing the selection process, but the state admitted some conflicts of interest were not investigated. In February, the selection team made its decision, voting to recommend Citrus as the new lead agency. DCF Secretary Chad Poppell will have the final say on who will win the contract.
Though it's almost certain Citrus will take over as the top provider of child welfare in the state's most populous region, the future of foster care in Miami-Dade and Monroe Counties remains uncertain. Whether thousands of vulnerable children in South Florida will actually be better off under Citrus is unclear.
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