Smaller effort to privatize child welfare hits Georgia Capitol

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One of the biggest proponents behind last year’s failed attempt to privatize Georgia’s child welfare system is at it again and will push a new, smaller plan to bypass the state’s foster care system.

State Sen. Renee Unterman, R-Buford, called the new proposal "a step further toward privatization. And I think it's a good route to go."

Senate Bill 3, which will be introduced in the chamber when lawmakers next convene Jan. 26, would allow a struggling parent to give temporary custody of his or her children to a friend or acquaintance. It would be for up to one year while the parent tries to get back on his or her feet.

The bill would also extend that ability to military service members, “especially women who are shipped overseas or shipped to another state and they want to keep their kids in the same school or same health care system. They can find a family or reach out to someone they know and give them temporary power of attorney,” said Unterman, one of the chamber’s top Republican leaders and chairwoman of its Health and Human Services Committee.

Here’s the kicker: The pairing between parent and friend would not be handled by the state or the Division of Family and Children Services, which controls Georgia’s foster care system. Instead, it would be made through faith-based groups or nonprofit organizations trained in crisis intervention.

It’s not nearly the effort of last year when Unterman, with the support of Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle and others, proposed to turn the bulk of the system over to private operators. That idea initially won support from Gov. Nathan Deal but failed to win over the House. It then got caught in an unusually acrimonious end to the legislative session, as a higher than usual number of bills were ripped apart and patched together with new parts.

Deal eventually backed a plan to test the idea with two small pilot programs. He also announced a comprehensive review of the state’s child welfare system, which had been roiled by several high-profile child deaths. That report, released earlier this month, pointedly did not embrace a privatized model for DFCS.

Instead, recommendations from what was officially called the Child Welfare Reform Council included creating a child abuse registry, adding pay incentives for DFCS caseworkers and developing a “panic button’’ to increase safety for workers in the field.

The recommendations came as DFCS Commissioner Bobby Cagle acknowledged shelving the pilot programs due to a lack of interest and expected high costs.

The governor’s office by policy does not comment on legislation before it passes. Deal’s spokesman, however, confirmed that Unterman gave Deal a heads-up on her plans and said Unterman has regular talks with the governor’s office on child welfare issues.

“The reason it’s so important to me is because I’ve talked to many children who may, by the time they’re 18 years old, have been in 20 foster care homes,” Unterman said, adding that the state still played an important role in the proposal. “The safety net is still DFCS. At any time, DFCS can intervene, and if they don’t take care of those children and the children get into trouble, DFCS is the fallback.”