Alleged conflicts of interest roil $500 million child welfare fight

It is one of the hardest jobs in child welfare: overseeing services to the approximately 3,000 foster children in Miami-Dade and Monroe counties, some abandoned, some abused, some both.

It also comes with a lucrative prize.

The five-year state contract is worth a staggering half-billion dollars, with a portion of that pot of money filtering down to smaller agencies that work directly with some of the neediest and most vulnerable children in the state.

For the better part of a year, a bitter fight has raged over who is to be the chief provider. It has devolved into a brawl, featuring allegations of conflict-of-interest on the selection team. Some of the complaints have been out in the open, while others were expressed in unsigned letters circulated to major stakeholders and the news media.

Both outfits vying for the job involve former children’s services insiders. It’s part of the revolving-door world in Florida where people in public sector positions sometimes transition into better-paying jobs outside of government.

The current provider, whose five-year deal runs out at the end of June, is the nonprofit Our Kids, headed until his death last summer by George Sheldon, a former secretary of the Department of Children & Families. It has been competing with the mental health nonprofit Citrus Health, whose leaders include several people who were affiliated with Our Kids until an unpleasant organizational fracture sent them packing.

Until recently, Citrus appeared to have the inside track. It was picked during an initial phase to negotiate directly toward a final agreement.

Then came the complaints. They included that a member of the selection committee used to work for Citrus; that another member, a former state senator, once got campaign contributions from Citrus’ CEO; that the chairwoman of the committee used to work directly under a top official with Citrus when both were at DCF and that selection committee members lobbed softball questions at Citrus while grilling Our Kids.

Among the items circulated anonymously: Facebook photos of DCF’s regional managing director at parties with former Our Kids leaders now working as Citrus leaders. The caption on one of them calls them “besties,” as in best friends.

Amid the cascade of complaints, the state threw out the first months-long selection process and began another — and initiated a management review to look at whether the process was compromised.

The report on that review was released last Thursday. It found no violations of law or policy but acknowledged that “not all possible conflicts of interest were identified or vetted.”

Amid all that, who will manage the care of thousands of children remains an open question.

“This is critical. What agency will provide the services to these vulnerable children,” said Carolyn Salisbury, an attorney for foster children in Miami-Dade. “As adult community members we are seeking to protect our littlest community members — they are unable to protect themselves.”

In Florida, child welfare is largely privatized, run by a patchwork of contractors and subcontractors. Our Kids’ has had the job for a decade. It is the largest such provider in the state.

In recent years, Our Kids has had trouble keeping foster parents on the rolls. The group scored middling numbers on the state’s scorecards for providing quality child welfare. Meanwhile top leadership of Our Kids turned over amid internal disputes.

But the tide had begun to change after new leadership came in, Our Kids argued. The nonprofit’s relationship with subcontractors had improved and it was the more experienced bidder compared to Citrus, which provides mental health services.

Citrus, on the other hand, said it could bring a fresh approach, with less baggage, to overseeing the contract.

Allegiances were quickly signaled: The Miami-Dade child welfare oversight board — the Community Based Care Alliance — wrote a letter in support of Our Kids, as did about half a dozen local judges and magistrates on official judicial letterhead. Local foster parents also signed a petition supporting the incumbent group.

As the process played out over several months, some community members worried that the selection committee had been skewed in Citrus’ favor.

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Bronwyn Stanford, who heads the Department of Children & Families’ Southern region, picked the committee charged with vetting bidders for the foster care contract.

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The 11-member committee was chosen by Bronwyn Stanford, managing director of DCF’s Southern Region. One member, Kimberley Welles, had worked for Citrus briefly in between stints as a DCF administrator. Rene Garcia, the former state senator, had in past years received campaign contributions from Citrus and its CEO, Mario Jardon.

Critics questioned why Gilda Ferradaz, the selection committee chairwoman, was tapped when she served as a DCF regional assistant director directly under Esther Jacobo — who was a leader of the Citrus team.

Finally, the anonymous letter began circulating. It included a number of attachments, including the Facebook photos that showed Stanford with former Our Kids leaders Jackie Gonzalez and Barbie Toledo — who started a software business that now contracts with Citrus. (In the management review, Stanford would acknowledge that they were personal friends, but said she stopped meeting with them during the negotiation process.)

Another Our Kids alum, former chair of the board of trustees Sandy Bohrer, helped present Citrus’ case.

Bohrer, a lawyer with the firm Holland & Knight, has represented the Miami Herald for years, often in the pursuit of public records, including efforts to obtain child welfare documents. The anonymous letter asserted that this posed a conflict of interest for the Herald, which writes frequently about child welfare issues but had not written about the Our Kids/Citrus contract dispute.

Herald Managing Editor Rick Hirsch said Bohrer is retained on a “case-by-case” basis but not on matters that directly involve Our Kids: “He is not involved in our pursuit of these stories.”

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Rene Garcia, a former state senator who sat on the committee helping select a foster care provider for Miami-Dade and Monroe, once received campaign contributions from the head of one of the bidders. He said it had no impact on his vote.

C.M. Guerrero Herald file photo

“I have never tried to influence the Herald’s coverage of anything, and my only relationship with the Herald is as its counsel,” Bohrer wrote in a statement. “As important as my representation of the Herald and my non-legal work in child welfare are to me, I have always kept them separate.”

The initial vote in favor of Citrus over Our Kids was lopsided — 10-1 — but that did not quell the questions, including assertions that the public was not given adequate opportunity to weigh in. One of those complaints was lodged by Salisbury, who is director of Lawyers for Children America, which represents abused, neglected and abandoned children.

Evin Daly — a longtime guardian-ad-litem in Miami-Dade, representing the interests of kids in dependency and domestic violence court — also highlighted in a signed complaint his concerns of “perceived bias.”

“There was a perception of unfairness … against Our Kids and for Citrus, and I was hoping for some resolution in writing those letters,” said Daly, a member of the county child welfare oversight board.

Daly also raised concerns about a meeting Citrus representatives held with Our Kids’ subcontractors before the committee had voted, which he considered inappropriate.

Garcia, the former state senator, bristled at the suggestion that contributions he received from Jardon in 2016 might have affected his judgment. He said he helped steer millions to Miami-Dade to assist Our Kids during his time in the Legislature and that he fully expected to vote for Our Kids until Citrus “did a much better job of presenting.”

Most others involved in the dispute said they did not want to comment or did not respond to multiple requests for comment. They included representatives of Citrus and Our Kids, as well as Bronwyn Stanford, Jackie Gonzalez and Esther Jacobo.

DCF “messed this up,” said Kurt Kelly, CEO and president of the Florida Coalition for Children, an association of state child welfare providers. “It could have been done much cleaner.”

Rebecca Kapusta, DCF’s then-interim secretary (since replaced by Chad Poppell, Gov. Ron DeSantis’ pick to lead the agency), doesn’t think so.

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Rebecca Kapusta, who was interim DCF secretary, said the process for selecting a foster care provider was handled properly. ‘I don’t believe any of it is really,’ she said of complaints.

Al Diaz / Miami Herald Staff Al Diaz / Miami Herald Staff

“Our Miami office did exactly what we want in the system, which is to build partnerships,” Kapusta told the Herald.

“I don’t believe any of it’s real,” she added of the complaints. “I don’t believe there really is any doubt about people being ethical and I support my team down in Miami 100 percent.”

With the inspector general investigation over and no laws deemed broken — and the author of a widely distributed unsigned letter still cloaked in anonymity — it is back to the beginning. DCF has opened up an “express” process to pick a new provider. DCF is hoping for a new recommendation for a winner in early March.

A contract worth half a billion dollars — not to mention the health, safety and welfare of thousands of foster children in Miami-Dade and Monroe Counties — still hangs in the balance.