Georgia senators to study privatizing foster care

More major changes could be proposed to Georgia’s foster care system — including putting it largely in the hands of the private sector.

A group of state senators opens hearings Tuesday on whether Georgia children could be better served by the current foster care system with a mix of public and private homes or by one operated mostly by private businesses.

“I am one who believes we should always be looking for ways to improve outcomes, especially when we are talking about the lives and futures of precious little ones,” said Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle, who is convening the Senate work group.

Advocates caution against any rush to overhaul the state’s foster care system, which currently serves nearly 7,000 children.

Georgia has already cut the number of children in foster care by nearly 50 percent since 2004 through a series of reform measures, said Melissa Carter, director of the Barton Child Law and Policy Center at Emory University’s School of Law. And more changes, which passed the General Assembly this year take effect in January, Carter said.

“I don’t believe this is the time for large-scale reform of the foster care system,” she said.

A story Sunday in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution found that Georgia has reduced its foster care rolls since 2004 by emphasizing “family preservation” and similar programs over removing children from homes, sometimes resulting in children’s deaths.

State Sen. Fran Millar, R-Dunwoody, who is to chair the working group, said the senators will examine whether Georgia children would be better off if the state followed Florida’s privatized foster care model.

“This is probably way overdue,” Millar said. “We need to improve the outcomes for these kids.”

He said the group could have legislation to present to lawmakers after the General Assembly convenes in January.

“Time may be a problem,” Millar said. “But this is to get the ball rolling.”

Georgia is already putting a for-profit company in charge of overseeing health care for children in foster care as part of a bigger effort to save the state’s ailing Medicaid program millions of dollars.

Florida privatized its child welfare system, including its foster care program, more than a decade ago, though the government retained its authority to investigate complaints of mistreatment and abuse.

Ed Walz, vice president with First Focus, a bipartisan child-advocacy group in Washington, D.C., said foster care in Florida has improved, not because of privatization, but because officials there have done more to establish a public-private partnership.

He said there are several potential “red flags” to look for in Georgia, including any early indication that the goal is to allow government “to wash its hands of a difficult problem.”

“Another red flag is if it looks like they are building a system without [adequate] resources,” Walz said.

A foster care system needs more options than either leaving a child in the home or moving the child to foster care, he said. For instance, another option could be a child staying in the home provided the parent receives effective help for problems such as substance abuse and finances, he said.

Pat Willis, executive director of the advocacy group Voices for Georgia’s Children, said one major concern has been “the revolving door of leadership for child welfare — including three directors of Family and Children’s Services in the administration of Gov. Nathan Deal and at least four in the administration of former Gov. Sonny Perdue.

Emory’s Carter said the law change that is effective in January modernizes the state’s approach to abuse and neglect cases that require court intervention, including foster care cases, and accelerates timelines to ensure cases are resolved more quickly.

“We need to allow these improvements to take effect and produce their desired outcomes,” Carter said.

The program, she said, could use some targeted help — namely money — to address the inadequate array of community services that are available, high staff turnover and low-paying positions. These systemic factors “inhibit our ability to achieve the best outcomes for each child,” Carter said.

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