Leader Blues

Sunday, December 17, 2006

EDITORIALS>>No way to run youth center

Having not learned one bitter lesson, the government is going to hire another private corporation to treat and house neglected and wayward Arkansas children. The neglect and abuse of children under the last private contractor were so bad that the state finally fired the company.

The state Department of Health and Human Services, which dismissed Cornell Companies of Pennsylvania as the operator of the Alexander Youth Services Center, is about to hire Group 4 Securitor of Great Britain to run the place. The last straw for Cornell was the discovery that its employees were administering psychotropic drugs to youngsters to keep them docile. Since Cornell Companies took over the center for the state in 2001, it has been plagued by scandal after scandal. A 17-year-old girl died last year from a blood clot in her lungs after the staff ignored her gasping pleas for help for two days. They thought she was a malingerer.

The director of the department said the state should give private business the work and the chance to make a profit when it can. He said the British security company came with a great reputation for running juvenile detention centers. So did Cornell.
Arkansas hired Cornell and now will contract with the British company so that the workers there will belong to the company and not be state employees. As state employees, they would be entitled to decent pay, medical insurance and retirement. The idea is that the state can save money by having a private company work the employees for whatever it can. But as it should have learned with Cornell, the state doesn’t save money that way, or if it does it is at a dear price.

The legislature appropriates a sum of money to operate the youth center each year. The private business earns a profit from that appropriation — that is why it contracts with the state — by squeezing what it can from the employees. That is the only way it stays in business. Could that translate into poorer employees?

State Rep. Jay Bradford of Pine Bluff, chair of the House Committee on Public Health, Welfare and Labor, was troubled. Why, he asked, can’t the state at least contract with a nonprofit to do it? Or better still, run the agency itself so that it can see that the center is run safely and humanely.