Few issues are more emotional than how a state cares for children who are removed from their families because of parental neglect, abuse or abandonment. Every week brings reports of parents somewhere in Michigan, sometimes still children themselves, who are unable or unwilling to provide the safe and loving home which their children need and deserve.

In our state, children are removed from their natural homes under extraordinary circumstances, and only after a series of careful legal steps have been taken to assess what's best for them. If the Michigan Department of Social Services (DSS) and court officers decide a child must be removed from a natural home, they will place the child in a setting where protection, oversight and counseling can be provided--either assigning the child to a local DSS caseworker or to a private child-placing agency under contract with DSS.

How long a child remains in foster care depends on a number of factors, including how bad the problems are in the home, the child's emotional and behavior problems, and adoption rates.

In examining trends in Michigan foster care over the past decade, two important observations stand out: 1) Since 1981, the number of children in Michigan removed from their homes due to neglect and abuse has more than doubled, and 2) The share of those children in the care of private agencies has risen from less than half to two-thirds. The sad and tragic explosion in the number of troubled children has been met by a growing and very successful privatization of foster care services.

A Mackinac Center report released in June found that it is less costly for Michigan taxpayers to place children in foster care environments supervised by private agencies under contract than for this service to be provided directly by the state Department of Social Services. The vast majority of Michigan's approximately 100 private child care agencies deliver care at a rate lower than the $21.82 daily per child cost of DSS-supervised foster care.

But cost alone should never be the sole criterion by which private and public foster care are compared. Providing the best care for children who are victims of neglect and abuse requires a caseworker to continuously monitor each child's progress in his or her foster home, and work toward family reunification, adoption, or other positive outcomes. Success in providing caring, therapeutic services to these children is greatly enhanced by lower worker caseloads.

State caseworkers are spread too thin, with far too many cases per worker. Most national child care accreditation agencies recommend child-to-worker ratios of 25:1. As recently as November, 1992, DSS was still 159 employees short of its more modest 30:1 target. Although some county DSS offices do meet either standard, DSS child foster care statewide has failed to achieve 30:1 caseload ratios for at least the past four years. In stark contrast, private agency ratios currently range from 19:1 to 23:1.

Actually, in calculating the child-to-worker ratios, the Mackinac Center report is charitable to DSS because it uses the figure of 625 for the total number of state foster care workers. That number includes not only the 387 direct service workers, but other full-time DSS personnel as well, such as foster care supervisors, clerical staff and case aides. If only the direct service workers were counted, DSS caseloads would be more than twice as high as the 25:1 accreditation standards.

The United Auto Workers, the union which represents DSS foster care workers, maintains that the state can provide foster care cheaper than the private sector but only if the state's annual $4,785 per worker cost for mileage, phones and office space are excluded from the equation. Moreover, the UAW ignores the fact that one private agency worker typically provides a better quality service with 23 children to monitor than one state worker can possibly provide supervising 30, 40, or 50. Private provision of foster care has been a win-win situation for both the children and the taxpayers but the UAW wants more state workers anyway.

No one claims that DSS employees are anything but caring and dedicated public servants. To applaud the success story of foster care privatization in Michigan is not to "bash" state workers. What we have here is simply a celebration of the equally caring and dedicated servants in the private sector--where accountability, competition and efficiency are commonplace virtues.

In the face of tight budgets, failure to utilize the services offered by private agencies in the name of "saving money" carries with it the grave risk of not only not saving money, but also of not saving children. The privatization of foster care in Michigan is a model of public/private partnerships, and one that deserves to grow.