From rags to riches to the levers of power

One-time foster kid drives the transformation of child welfare law

Richard L. Jackson, who built a temp empire in Atlanta that provides doctors and nurses for short-term staffing, may be new to the game of wielding influence at the state Capitol. But one thing he has is the price of admission.

On Oct. 2, Jackson held a fundraiser for Gov. Nathan Deal at his 47,000-square-foot mansion in Cumming, which includes 20 bathrooms, an 18-hole golf course in the yard and a movie theater modeled on the Fabulous Fox on Peachtree. Jackson and his family contributed $54,080 to Deal, state records show.

That same month, his family contributed $51,400 to Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle and then helped host a fundraiser for Cagle in November at the Alpharetta offices of Jackson Healthcare.

For someone who doesn’t know where to park at the Capitol, Rick Jackson, just a month shy of his 60th birthday, suddenly is a player.

What does this man want?

“I attack big things,” Jackson says. “You either go big or you go home.”

Jackson is attacking two big things, and he would bring radical change to both: first, he seeks to privatize most of the state’s child welfare/foster care system, and second, he would take medical malpractice claims away from the courts and send them to an administrative panel. The two initiatives may not pass — and, if not for Jackson, might not even have come up — but the health staffing executive knows how to reach the ear of the powerful.

Last year, he lunched with former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and persuaded him to join the advisory board of Jackson Healthcare.

A phone call with Jackson appears on Deal’s calendar on Jan. 22. In October, the same month as the Deal fundraiser, Jackson met with the governor to pitch his plan for transforming Georgia’s foster care system.

“That wouldn’t have mattered to Governor Deal,” Jackson said of the fundraiser. “The meeting was set up 30, 60 days in advance. It just so happened that it was after a fundraiser.”

The same day of the Cagle fundraiser, Nov. 12, Jackson testified before Cagle’s new special Senate working group exploring an overhaul of the state’s foster care system — prompted in large part by Jackson.

Once a resident of Techwood Homes

Jackson's interest in foster care comes from his own troubled past. Growing up, he didn't know his father and lived with his mother, an alcoholic with a sixth-grade education. She drifted from boyfriend to boyfriend — men Jackson calls his seven "stepfathers." Jackson lived for a time in Techwood Homes public housing project in Atlanta and attended eight elementary schools.

At age 13, he was placed in the state foster care system because of the troubles at home. After bouncing around to several foster homes, he landed with a Christian family that offered him a “stable environment to have a chance,” he said.

He testified before the Senate foster care working group that the experience of seeing a religious family eat and pray together “changed my view forever.”

“I want more kids in Georgia to have that same chance,” he told the group.

He graduated from high school but didn’t have money for college. He got a job recruiting secretaries for a temp agency that he later bought. He went into the executive search business with his Sunday school teacher and got into the physician recruiting business in 1978. He founded other companies and describes himself as a “serial entrepreneur in health care.” By 2000, however, he almost went broke and lost everything.

That year he “retooled” with his current venture, Jackson Healthcare. The privately held Alpharetta company has grown to 800 employees and helps place doctors, nurses and other medical professionals in temporary jobs nationwide. The company reported $500 million in revenue in 2012.

His success and shrewd deal-making are on full display at his Cumming mansion, dubbed “Le Reve,” which is French for “The Dream.” The home cost nearly $50 million and was finished in 2006 but quickly went into foreclosure. Jackson and his wife got it at a bargain for $11.5 million in 2011 — a price that included $2 million for the furniture and contents.

“There is not a day that I don’t thank God for allowing me to have things,” Jackson said. “It’s not my money anyway, it’s God’s money. And as a steward I’m trying to do good things with the money, such as reforming foster care.”

‘We don’t think it’s the right solution’

On at least one front, medical malpractice, Jackson has run into monumental opposition from doctors, lawyers and insurers.

“We don’t think it’s the right solution,” said Donald PalmisanoJr., executive director/CEO of the Medical Association of Georgia, the leading doctors group in the state.

Jackson and his group seem undeterred. They have used attack fliers that have angered lawmakers, including some Republicans. One flier sent to Sen. Josh McKoon's constituents dubbed the Columbus Republican a "liberal special interest puppet." McKoon, a lawyer, fought back calling Jackson's proposal unconstitutional, saying it would be bad for patients and the health care system.

Jackson has yet to employ such tactics in the foster care campaign. Even so, his proposal would mark the biggest change to the state’s child welfare system in decades. The bill, which would contract out functions such as adoption, foster care, family reunification and case management, has provoked concern and skepticism among many within the system. It’s based on a plan that took root a decade ago in Florida, and child advocates worry Jackson is using his money and influence to propel the state on a headlong path of change without enough study on how it would affect the 7,700 children in foster care.

Michelle Long, who has worked in the foster care systems in Florida and now in Georgia, said Florida created another level of bureaucracy without necessarily improving the lives of children.

Long said she respects Jackson and believes his motives are good. But she’s not convinced privatization is the answer and wants lawmakers to review Florida’s experience carefully before making changes.

“I don’t see any sense in creating something new if it’s going to cost taxpayers more money,” she said.

‘I’m not trying to proselytize’

Jackson’s views are driven, in part, by his background in the church and his experience as the chief benefactor of FaithBridge Foster Care, a Christian child placement agency that operates out of his Alpharetta corporate offices.

“If you love kids and take care of them and never mention trying to teach them religion, then they are still going to get some,” said Jackson. “To me I’m not trying to proselytize. It just so happens that faith-based is a target-rich environment for quality people to take care of kids.”

Jackson’s access to two of the state’s most powerful Republicans has already helped advance his proposal. Jackson was the first guest speaker at the initial meeting of Cagle’s working group in November. In January, Deal’s administration announced plans to pursue a federal waiver to allow the state more flexibility in how it spends federal child welfare dollars. Last week, a bill with striking parallels to the Florida law was filed in the Senate to overhaul Georgia’s system. Jackson and his group worked closely with Cagle, who leads the Senate, and the bill’s chief sponsor, Sen. Renee Unterman (R-Buford) in drafting the legislation.

Jackson says he’s “out of my element when it comes to legislation and politics” and is so new to the Capitol culture that he hasn’t even learned where to find the good parking spots. But he’s been savvy enough to hire a pollster and a lobbyist to help push through his plan.

“It is rare to see people like Rick willing to step out front on big issues,” said Eric Tanenblatt, senior managing director with McKenna, Long & Aldridge, which is lobbying the bill for Jackson. “He is unique and his passion is contagious.”

‘A safe, stable, loving family’

Jackson’s foray into public policy came in 2009 when he joined Newt Gingrich’s think tank, the Center for Health Transformation. In 2011, Jackson made his first ever political contribution — to Gingrich’s presidential campaign. In 2012, Deal appointed Jackson to the board that oversees the Department of Community Health.

He uses his wealth and entrepreneurial instincts to support the faith-based foster care charity that he bankrolls. FaithBridge was created by Bill Hancock, a longtime foster care administrator and director of Christian children’s homes.

When the two met more than five years ago, Jackson had been searching for an organization to support financially that he thought had a chance to improve the foster care system. He was drawn to Hancock’s concept of using churches to recruit foster families and support them at the community level.

“He brings a real business acumen to solving social problems,” Hancock said of Jackson.

In five years, the nonprofit has served 500 foster children. It’s concentrated in Cobb, Cherokee and North Fulton but has expanded to eight other counties. Serving 80 or 90 kids at a time, the organization is considered big for a private social service agency. But the group’s website signals a much larger ambition. It boasts that it exists for the sole purpose of changing the way foster care is done in America.

“Rick wants this to become an organization that can be scalable and sustainable so that every child can have a safe, stable and loving family when they can’t grow up at home,” said Hancock. “He really wants children to be safe.”

A lunch meeting with Jeb Bush

The plan, according to Jackson, was to keep growing FaithBridge and expand the number of churches to help solve the problem.

That changed in April at a lunch meeting in Naples, Fla., with Jeb Bush. Jackson had met Bush a few years ago while working on the medical malpractice initiative in Florida. He said he was hoping to persuade Bush to join Jackson Healthcare’s advisory board, but during the course of the conversation his interest in foster care came up.

Bush suggested Jackson look at what his state did when he was governor to expand the role of nonprofits and church groups. Florida privatized much of its child welfare system about a decade ago. The state contracts with large private agencies in each region to manage subcontractors that do most of the work.

“He had already done it in Florida,” Jackson said. “I was really intrigued with what they did in creating this community-based care approach, which was a public-private partnership. He was telling me all the benefits.”

Jackson recognized in Florida’s system many of the benefits he sees with his own group’s work. He thinks local community groups can do a better job than government agencies.

“They seem to be overworked,” Jackson said. “It’s just a huge problem. I don’t have enough details to say are they doing a good job within the framework they can, but generally I do not believe the government was ever meant to be a parent.”

‘Florida has a great story to tell’

Bush suggested Jackson call the Foundation for Government Accountability in Naples, which has advocated for conservative causes in the state. A foundation report in October lauds the state’s public-private approach to foster care.

Jackson has met with the foundation’s CEO, Tarren Bragdon, and used its data to help formulate and support his efforts in Georgia.

Bragdon visited Georgia five times since first talking to Jackson last spring and has testified before the Senate foster care working group.

“Our goal is how do you improve outcomes for kids that have been abused and neglected,” Bragdon said. “Florida has a great story to tell for how they’ve been able to successfully engage communities, work with flexible private agencies and in the process help kids and families.”

Jackson says passage of the bill this year is critical to ensure the state qualifies for a waiver from Washington on how the state spends federal child welfare funds.    Regardless of what happens, Jackson said he won’t give up trying to change the system.

“If it doesn’t go anywhere this year, then we won’t be able to reform it like Florida has,” Jackson said. “We’d have to examine other approaches because then we would be just looking at improvements instead of real reform.”

Jackson acknowledges that Florida is the only state where he’s taken a “deep dive” to examine its system and says he is relying on Bragdon’s research to fill in some of the gaps.

“He has checked other states and he says this is the best program he has seen in the United States,” Jackson said. “He doesn’t make money off of it. He’s a credible guy. … This is a nonprofit organization. This was part of their mission. To replicate this is their mission.”

On Thursday, Jackson passed a milestone at the Capitol — he got a shout out at a Senate Health and Human Services subcommittee meeting that acknowledged his new influence under the Gold Dome.

“He’s a businessman who put his money where his mouth is,” said Sen. Fran Millar, R-Dunwoody, who chaired the foster care work group. “He is the one who talked to the lieutenant governor and I think got his interest going on this. And we wouldn’t be where we are today without Rick, and I would be remiss if I didn’t thank him.”