(This is a copy of the
original story on the AJC site.)
Reprinted with the permission of the Atlanta Journal and the Atlanta Constitution.
[The Atlanta Journal-Constitution: 12.04.99]
Can government insider
play outsider at DFACS?
By Bill Torpy
Atlanta Journal-Constitution Staff Writer
DFACS chief chosen
Gov. Roy Barnes calls Juanita Blount-Clark a "builder, a problem solver" and an "outsider." Her mission as the new head of Georgia's embattled child protection agency is to shake up the Division of Family and Children Services.
As director of a hybrid public-private organization called Family Connection, Blount-Clark is said to be an energetic innovator in attacking nagging problems like teen pregnancy and at-risk children.
"She's a visionary. She can get people to work toward goals," said Carolyn Reynolds, who heads the Family Connection in Wilkes County. "She has plenty of grit and won't be intimidated to tackle big problems."
Blount-Clark knows her mission will be arduous and says change is inevitable. "There are no sacred cows here. Everything needs to be examined," she said. "Whatever needs to be changed will be changed."
Yet Blount-Clark has worked for 18 years within the Department of Human Resources, the state agency that oversees DFACS.
Family Connection encourages private and government agencies to set up programs for children. Many praise it as a new tool to help focus resources.
The agency, founded in 1991 by Gov. Zell Miller, is an unusual animal: It's headquartered on Peachtree Street in a nonprofit group's office; it's funded by the Legislature and administered through DHR; and its director is a state employee.
"It's not a program; it's a community strategy," said Jenny Bostick, who heads up 14 counties in South Georgia and said the program has helped garner grants for her counties.
Other child advocates and state officials say accountability is difficult with so many disparate partners with wide-ranging interests and agendas.
"Communities that have their act together don't need Family Connection to succeed, and those that don't have their act together don't do well, even with [Family Connection] money," said one DHR official.
Others question whether Blount-Clark will be the needed force for change, especially when moving from an agency with a $8.5 million annual budget to one that is nearly $1 billion.
The administrator of a program to build a resource center for Family Connection says she repeatedly appealed to several state officials -- including Blount-Clark -- in a frustrating campaign to stem tens of thousands of dollars in waste.
Gail Woods, then a Medical College of Georgia employee, said she continually called Blount-Clark in 1997 and 1998 to tell her much of a $1.4 million grant was being misspent. The money, from the state's Indigent Care Trust Fund, was administered for Family Connection by MCG in Augusta. The project was to connect 10 statewide Family Connection county franchises through the Augusta Family Connection "partner."
The $1.4 million represented a boon to Family Connection, whose budget that year was $5.5 million.
The attorney general's health care fraud unit investigated and issued a report saying nearly $75,000 was misspent and another $450,000 should be re-examined. Assistant Attorney General Charles Richards said MCG, not Family Connection, was legally responsible for making sure the money was properly spent.
Richard, in his report, said "a significant amount [of the grant money] clearly is not" being used for the Family Connection project. He recommended an audit, which is now being done by a private firm, MCG says.
Woods, recalling her mounting frustration, said she called Blount-Clark about 10 times and talked to her two or three times.
"I kept looking at this money thinking that we're not doing anything for the indigent. I called and said, 'Juanita, can you intervene here? It's not being spent right,'Ê" said Woods. "It would have been nothing for her to say, 'You gave us $1.4 million. Where is it?' Juanita knew exactly what happened and didn't lift a finger."
Blount-Clark says, "I'm not going to second-guess myself. What I did, I did. The resources in question were resources that belonged to Medical College of Georgia."
Emily Boyles, president of the Augusta partner, resigned during the project and left the board a memo saying spending safeguards were needed.
"I do not know one child who benefited from all that money," Boyles said this week. "It was certainly an opportunity for the state [Family Connection] folks to say, 'Invest this in the community.' "
Several Family Connection county directors, all of them still supporters of Blount-Clark, say the computer project never approached their projections.
The Family Connection has never had a state performance audit. But Blount-Clark said she has fine-tuned how her agency issues grants. Communities used to get $100,000 in their second year of participation. They now get $50,000, with the larger grant coming in the third year.
She said it takes communities longer to get their programs started, so the larger grants are issued later when the money is more effective.
Asked if she'll step on the toes necessary to make changes at DFACS, Blount-Clark said "I guess we'll have to wait and see."
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