Proposals to privatize government services often arouse heated debate. But perhaps no privatization initiatives stir more emotion than those involving child and youth social services.

In Macomb County, commissioners are currently working on several bold alternatives–including privatization–for its youth home.

The Macomb County Youth Home was built in two parts. The first was built in the 1950s and the addition was built in the early 1970s. Today, the Home maintains bed space for 114 delinquent youth–70 boys and 28 girls whose criminal backgrounds range from truancy to murder. It also houses a small contingent of abused children.

The residents are locked in their own rooms at night, attend a six-period in-home school during the day, and enjoy common areas that accommodate 14 residents at a time. The home also maintains a full-time staff of 54 childcare workers and an average of 30 part-time staff.

The cost of operating the home for Fiscal Years 1994 through 1998 was nearly $11 million. The 1997-1998 cost was the lowest in years: $1,494,323.

While the facility remains operational, the structure is showing its age. The roof is leaking, the sewer lines have backed up into the home, the carpet needs to be replaced, and the kitchen is so small that meals cannot be cooked at one time for all diners. Rather, the home must feed its kids by running food out as it comes off the stove. This is a very expensive way to operate. Indeed, each meal costs over $3.00 per child, as opposed to $1.80 at a nearby jail.

A private, nonprofit organization called "Care House," which takes in abused children, has purchased and donated new mattresses to the Macomb County home to help its abused children. Apparently, Dale Camphous, Care House founder, toured the home and found its abused and neglected children sleeping in urine-soaked mattresses and in night clothes full of holes. He noted that the filthy conditions in which the Macomb County Home’s children have lived make it "the biggest child abuser in the county."

Several Macomb County Commissioners have been examining a multitude of options to improve the situation. They include

• Building an entirely new facility to be operated by the county. The estimated cost of a new building tops $27 million;

• Contracting with a private welfare/correctional facility, such as Youth Services International, to run the home;

• Shutting down the facility completely and offering no alternative;

• Adding a floor to the local jail and vacating the current home; or

• Building an addition to the current facility and contracting out for support services.

Whatever option it chooses, Macomb County seems prepared to consider some kind of partnership with private welfare agencies. This would be a step in the right direction and one they should continue to explore. At the very least, the commissioners should consider moving the abused children to a private agency, such as the Care House.

Taking care of the children should be the main concern of all parties. And numerous examples have shown how privatization of child and youth-centered care can do a better job for less money when government partners with the private sector.

Consider Kent County’s recent success story.

Kent County Child Haven was built in 1960 as a response to the previous practice of housing in the juvenile detention center children who were victims of abuse or neglect, alongside youths who were accused of crimes (much like Macomb, today). After 28 years as a county-run facility Child Haven closed its doors.

In its place was left a consortium of charitable organizations headed by St. John’s Home, a non-profit children’s agency. The consortium acts as a "one-stop" receiving center for neglected children, often brought to the home by county law enforcement officers. As a one-stop child welfare center, St. John’s gives access to a facility that can provide medical care, counseling, food, and a warm, safe place for children to sleep until their needs can be fully ascertained.

"We’re doing a better job now with the problem and taking care of more youngsters," Robert Jamo, chairman of the Kent County Family Independence Agency board, told Michigan Privatization Report.

The consortium receives about $900,000 annually from Kent County, enabling St. John’s Home to provide 24-hour, 7-days-a-week services. In 1999, St. John’s Home is expected to help up to 500 kids.

This is just one success story, but it is a public-private one that can inspire others to improve the welfare of children. Macomb County’s children might be better served if officials there attempted the same.