Push to privatize foster care, adoptions fails

A sweeping plan to privatize the state’s child welfare system failed to pass Thursday in the frenzied final hours of the legislative session amid infighting between the House and Senate over unrelated bills to legalize medical marijuana and mandate autism coverage for some children.

The failure comes one week after Gov. Nathan Deal, who in January endorsed the privatization push, announced he was forming a commission to study child welfare services in an attempt to delay the proposal at least a year. Senate leaders pressed on, believing they had a compromise in the final hours to launch a three-year pilot program. But it fell victim to broader infighting between the two Republican-led chambers.

Sen. Fran Millar, R-Dunwoody, who supported the bill, said he worried the takeaway from the session is: “We did nothing for kids, but we passed a gun bill.”

The push for privatization has long been a priority for Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle and other Republican leaders, but it has failed to gain steam in previous sessions. This year, though, GOP lawmakers introduced the legislation in response to at least two high-profile child deaths and widespread failings by the state’s Division of Family and Children Services uncovered by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

Days before the session began, Deal endorsed the effort, giving it added heft. But Senate and House lawmakers clashed over legislation that would have privatized the bulk of Georgia’s child welfare system, including foster care and adoption.

Senate leaders wanted the state to start bidding out all child welfare services by 2017, while House heavyweights wanted a scaled-back pilot program to test privatization in select areas.

As negotiations stalled, the governor announced a commission to review the state’s child welfare system, which will convene later this year. But state Sen. Renee Unterman, R-Buford, the bill’s main sponsor, pressed on for privatization.

The legislation was fraught with emotion. More than 150 children died in 2012 despite DFCS’ intervention in their families. Thirteen of those, or about 9 percent, died while in foster care. Unterman used Emani Moss, a 10-year-old from Gwinnett County who was allegedly starved to death by her parents, as a symbol for the need for changes to the system.

Supporters say privatization would make the child welfare system more responsive and improve the experience of children receiving state services. But critics say more research needs to be done and that privatization would not have addressed Georgia’s real problems, which involve the investigation and handing of abuse allegations.

Lawmakers have made little over the issue of cost, only to say they did not expect privatization to produce a savings. Experts who have studied child welfare spending nationally say privatization inevitably results in increased spending for child welfare, especially in the early years.

Unterman vowed the legislation will return next year.

“I know one thing,” she said. “I’ll be working on this for the next nine months, and I will be back in January with another bill.”