The Last Word: ChildNet, Ketchup and a Comeback

Six Sigma’s debut in Florida’s social-services circles was as well-received as, well, ketchup on ice cream.

Condiments don’t necessarily correlate with child-welfare advocacy, but a lowly ketchup bottle deserves a nod of gratitude from Emilio Benitez in his quest to revamp Florida’s foster-care system.

Benitez founded ChildNet, which is this year’s winner of Workforce‘s Optimas Award for General Excellence, in the months following Florida’s 1999 privatization of its child-welfare system. And while Heinz’s 57 varieties wouldn’t squeeze into the picture for several more years, the story of Benitez and his organization is an unconventional tale of a man, his disparate but binding passions for his family and customers, and an unflinching belief that the status quo is never good enough.

Oh, and there’s that bottle of ketchup.

Benitez’s desire to found ChildNet was inspired by his family. That personal connection—his grandmother was adopted and his father was a foster child—embraces the people he calls his customers: children and families in the child-welfare system.

“We forget that kids in the system didn’t do anything wrong,” Benitez said while on the road at ChildNet’s latest challenge: taking over child-welfare cases in Palm Beach County, Florida. “Children are caught in the middle. So, the children and families you serve are ultimately your customers.”

After founding ChildNet in 2001, Benitez spent several years building the bridge between his organization and the eye-bleeding bureaucracy of social services. He ultimately overcame the entrenched attitude that social work on behalf of children is the exclusive purview of the Florida Department of Children and Families, and how dare you bring your private organization into our insulated little world?

Benitez left ChildNet to return to his Fort Lauderdale law practice secure in the knowledge that the organization was on solid footing. That comfort was fleeting; a year later ChildNet was raided by the FBI on fraud allegations, leading to the dismissal of its CEO and the board chairman’s resignation.

Benitez returned to the firm he founded, determined to restore employee morale and assuage the DCF’s “mistrust-o-meter,” which was cranked back up to high following the scandal.

By 2008 Benitez was slowly rebuilding the organization. This time around, however, Benitez incorporated an unorthodox wrinkle into ChildNet’s team.

His inspiration? Enter the ketchup bottle.

“I read an article about a supermarket chain that was using Six Sigma to determine where to place Heinz ketchup to push sales,” Benitez recalled of the business-management strategy made famous by Jack Welch. “We were having issues in performance; we never looked at data to make useful decisions to force improvement.”

Social services, meet the world of measure, implement and analyze. Six Sigma’s debut in Florida’s social-services circles was as well-received as, well, ketchup on ice cream. “It was like pulling teeth to get them to engage in it,” Benitez said. “They had Googled it and saw it was a practice used in manufacturing. The push back was huge.”

Benitez refused to return to the old way of doing things. “I recognized that we couldn’t be a slave to our shortcomings. I wouldn’t accept the status quo. The only way to improve was to push the agency forward.”

Like many events Benitez had encountered with ChildNet, the odds were against him. But the payoff was bigger. As the results trickled in, even most metric-averse colleagues came around.

“The social workers in Broward County began to see it really works,” Benitez said.

Not surprisingly, ChildNet operations in Broward County now ranks No. 1 among the DCF’s 20 community-based child-welfare agencies.

Now Benitez and his staff face another tough assignment in Palm Beach County where they are confronted with high crime, poverty and huge caseloads. The compass is pointing in the right direction after barely a month on the job there.

“In three weeks we’ve moved up [the DCF’s state rankings from number 16] to number 10 in Florida. We’re using the same philosophies here and the staff is engaged. They’re embracing what we want to accomplish.”

It’s a job Benitez clearly relishes.

Rick Bell is Workforce’s managing editor. Comment below or email editors@workforce.com.

Workforce Management, November 2012, p. 34Subscribe Now!