FIRING OR SUSPENDING a few caseworkers or supervisors is not going to fix the Department of Human Services.

In fact, it's wrong to talk about fixing DHS. Ensuring that kids are safe means a radical readjustment of the machine we've built over the years to help them, of which DHS is only a part.

The emphasis should be on "radical." For example, here's a radical idea: Maybe the problem with DHS isn't that there isn't enough money, but that there's too much.

It's hard not to wonder this when you look at the complicated apparatus built over the last few decades to tackle the mission of keeping kids safe. It's a machine in which staggering amount of taxpayer money - $612 million a year - moves through a complicated series of levels, through government and independent agencies. (See Page 17 for a detailed diagram.)

A wide variety of services for the 20,000 children under DHS' care ranges from after-school programs to the kind of close in-home monitoring that Danieal Kelly was supposed to get but didn't.

Most of these services are provided by outside agencies. About 85 percent of DHS's money is spent on contracts. Independent groups are responsible for running foster homes, parenting classes, and a variety of other services. These non-profits are the main caregivers for the thousands of children for which DHS is responsible.

And we have no doubt that most of them take their mission of caring for the city's neglected, abused and needy children very seriously.

But the money goes in so many different directions that it's hard to track. More than 300 contracts were awarded to providers last year. These nonprofits are exempt from open-records laws that apply to government agencies. Any citizen who wants to track exactly where the money goes has a tough row to hoe.

DHS workers also have a tough job, managing dozens of contracts instead of caring for kids and families. We imagine many as having a passion, and a college degree for social work, then finding themselves working for a corporation whose job it is to administer more than a half-billion dollars in contracts.

The current structure is not only inefficient, but it also isolates DHS employees from the neighborhoods they are supposed to be servicing. The system of providers also makes it difficult for the leadership of DHS to develop a comprehensive citywide strategy for child welfare.

AFTER WEEKS of analyzing the structure of the child-welfare system, and wondering how things with Danieal Kelly and other lost children could go wrong so badly, we have been struck with the idea that the city has inadvertently built a child-welfare industrial complex that is more about managing huge amounts of money than it is about keeping kids safe. In fact, the work of DHS has become feeding the machine of DHS.

For example, if one were to count the number of workers involved in the DHS complex - federal and state budget administrators, local DHS staff, the 380 contractors and all their staff - it might come close to equaling the number kids under DHS' care. Surely, we can do better than that.

We have the money. But we can't begin to know whether we have too much money or not enough, until the city and state decide on the mission for its at-risk children, and design a system that has less of a chance of failing them. In the meantime, maybe the most efficient way is to divide the DHS money by the number of children in its case files. According to our calculations, that would mean a check to each child for $30,000, every year. *