Mystery thickens

 Press secretary Gillespie soon sent me an email titled, “Privatization info.”


bsp;“Hi Bill,” Gillespie wrote. “This is the person I was told might have visited PA. He is with one of our contracted agencies in Tampa: Ron Zychowski, Eckerd Community Alternatives.”

 Zychowski, it turned out, is Eckerd’s chief operating officer. He’s also a talented pitchman for Eckerd, I read on the firm’s website.

 In an April 2010 article titled “Eckerd Child Welfare Case Management Contact Award,” the company website explains, “Ron Zychowski did a masterful job presenting to the (Palm Beach County, Florida) evaluation committee… He passionately communicated Eckerd’s philosophy and approach to engaging the children, families, staff and stakeholders of Palm Beach County.”

 “Although Eckerd has offices and facilities in six states, we serve children and families nationwide,” Eckerd’s website further explains.

 A map shows six states where Eckerd has offices: Florida, Iowa, Louisiana, North Carolina, Texas and Vermont.

 There’s obviously plenty of growth potential for private firms like Eckerd: the map also suggests the 44 states where Eckerd has yet to open offices.

 “We’re a national company,” one of Eckerd’s employees tells me when I ring the firm. “We’re the leading provider of services for two judicial districts in Florida.”

 I finally get through to Eckerd COO Zychoski. I explain I’d been referred by Sec. Wilkins office at the Florida Department of Children and Families.

 “There must be some mistake,” Zychoski tells me. He’s never had the pleasure of being in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, he tells me.

 “We’re not doing anything in Pennsylvania,” he tells me. There’s a short pause.

 “We are doing a little bit of work in Philadelphia,” he adds. But not with the state. With the City of Philadelphia.

 Philadelphia has its own large Department of Human Services which, bureaucratically at least, is distinct from the Pennsylvania Department of Public Welfare.

 Even so, there’s plenty of historic and financial overlap shared between the state and its largest municipal social services department. Former Gov. Ed Rendell’s Secretary of Public Welfare, Estelle Richman, for example, previously worked as Director of Social Services for the City of Philadelphia. Richman now works as senior advisor to the secretary of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD).

 “We’re not doing anything in Pennsylvania other than a very, very small consulting contract with a police district in Philadelphia,” Eckerd’s Zychoski tells me.

 He explains that Philadelphia in fact is seeking to privatize some of it social services, which are organized, he says, around 20-some police districts.

“Within one of the police districts a small provider has in interest in that, and we’re working with them.” he explains. “The City of Philadelphia has an RFP (request for proposals) out for that.” The Philadelphia RFP [Request for Propopsal] is due in the coming weeks, he explains.

 Zychoski is a pleasant, able and engaging sort of executive. He speaks of improving outcomes for the kids under his firm’s care

 (“Outcomes” is a terminology associated with results-based reporting standards of social services agencies.  It was  pioneered by such quasi-private groups as Community Action, which itself was founded in the early 1960s by President John F. Kennedy and his brother-in-law, Sargent Shriver.)

 Social services privatization: Wave of the future

 Expect more privatization of social services in the United States, Zychoski tells me.

 “Yes, it’s the wave of the future, but it’s shape and form and function are going to very from state to state,” Zychoski adds.

 He points out that the two states that already have privatized social services -Florida and Kansas — “have very, very different models.”

 The basic idea, he says, is “to put the service delivery in the hands of the private sector.” Firms like his, he says, “are better service providers than the public sector.”

 “The power behind community-based care is the engagement of the community and the ownership of the community in need of help and assistance,” he says.

 “As long as the state continues to due this, you’re going to have people who have no understanding of that’s going on in their community,” he adds.

 Zychoski tells me that when he goes out to speak before community groups, he tells people, “Did you know that by the time I finish this fifteen minute conversation, fifteen children will be abused?”

 We have a pleasant chat for a few minutes. I explain to him some of the problems now surrounding the troubled Pennsylvania Department of Public Welfare:  Jerry Sandusky,  Second Mile,  foster kids betrayed by an unresponsive state bureaucracy.

 Not long after I hang up, I get the news that Gov. Tom Corbett’s Secretary of Public Welfare, Gary Alexander, has just resigned, “to spend more time with his family,” a press release says.

 I call Sec. Alexander’s office to speak with him about his resignation, and to ask about social services privatization efforts in Pennsylvania.

 A receptionist tells me outgoing Sec. Alexander is not available, and refers me to the press office.

 I’m still waiting for a return call from the 16,000-person strong Pennsylvania Department of Public Welfare.

To be continued …

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