Speed of foster care fix troubling for some

A plan to put private organizations in charge of Georgia’s approximately 7,000 foster children is moving too fast for some child advocates who want more study before overhauling the system.

Gov. Nathan Deal last week announced plans to turn over aspects of the state’s child-protection system to private organizations after revelations of widespread failings by the agency. A bill could be introduced this session that would call for changes as early as 2015, said sources familiar with the legislation.

The sleeper issue wasn’t expected to gain traction during this speedy legislative session, but a looming federal deadline related to foster care funding has ignited a sense of urgency. Rick Jackson, a Georgia executive and philanthropist pushing the change, said the state will need to get a spending waiver from the federal government this year to make privatization a possibility.

“It’s kind of a now-or-never proposition,” he said. “It’s forced us to evaluate whether this is right for Georgia.”

But some advocates aren’t sure it is right for Georgia. Melissa Carter, director of the Barton Child Law and Policy Center at Emory University’s School of Law, said the waiver will give the state more flexibility on how it spends foster care dollars, but privatization isn’t the only way to make changes.

“There is not consensus from anyone who would be impacted in Georgia’s child welfare system that this is the right strategy to pursue,” she said. “The pace makes everyone anxious.”

The move toward privatization follows Deal’s earlier proposal to spend $27 million over the next three years to hire more than 500 DFCS caseworkers and supervisors — an increase of 26 percent. That proposal came shortly after the highly publicized deaths of two metro Atlanta children and reports in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution that DFCS workers’ mistakes contributed to at least 25 deaths in 2012.

Privatization has become the reform of choice for governors who want to fix broken child-protection systems. Deal has been quietly working with House Speaker David Ralston and Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle on an overhaul for DFCS. Cagle organized a working group last year to examine foster care, and Ralston said this week he was “open” to privatization.

On Tuesday, Rick Jackson’s non-profit Partnership to Protect Children sponsored an educational session where lawmakers heard about Florida’s system, which began moving toward privatization in the 1990s.

As in Florida, Georgia would retain authority over many aspects of the child-protection system, including investigations. State workers still would decide whether to remove children from family custody, and judges still would have to ratify those decisions. But private agencies — probably nonprofits — would take over once a child goes into foster care and would be involved in deciding when, or if, to send a child home.

But Florida system still faces harsh criticism and challenges. In July, the state’s child welfare agency head abruptly resigned over conflicts with the agency’s private contractors, according to the Associated Press. Since the transition, adoptions have increased dramatically, but child abuse deaths for those with a history with the department have mostly remained steady, according to the news service.

Georgia has already implemented a series of reform measures, and some advocates say they want to see what’s working before taking a new direction. Pat Willis, executive director of the advocacy group Voices for Georgia’s Children, praised the governor’s approach to criminal justice reform — which examined local data and engaged local organizations — and thinks the same strategy would work for foster care.

“We need to understand if the reforms are working and if they aren’t, why,” said Willis. “Yes, other state’s experiences are important, but we need time to dig into our own data.”

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