Sen. Renee Unterman, R-Buford, talks with Sen. John Albers, R-Woodstock, during the February 4, 2014, Legislative session. Unterman, along with five other lawmakers, introduced S.B. 350 which calls for privatizing Georgia's child protection system.
Photo: BRANT SANDERLIN / BSANDERLIN@AJC.COM
Photo: BRANT SANDERLIN / BSANDERLIN@AJC.COM

State child welfare system would go private under proposed law

Most of Georgia’s child welfare system would be dismantled and turned over to private companies under a new bill introduced this week by Senate lawmakers.

Senate Bill 350 would require the Division of Family and Children Services or DFCS to contract out primary functions such as adoption, foster care, family reunification and case management. The massive overhaul is modeled after a similar system in Florida, which began moving toward privatization in the 1990s.

If passed, DFCS would still conduct investigations and handle claims of child abuse and neglect. The state would also be responsible for monitoring the quality of the contractors and ensuring they meet state and federal law, but other duties, such as fiscal oversight, could also be contracted out.

“The bottom line is we’re looking for better outcomes for these young people,” said Sen. Fran Millar, R-Dunwoody, who co-sponsored the bill and chaired a working group that examined the issue. “The key to making this work is to have non-profits getting in the game on a larger and larger basis.”

Last month, Gov. Nathan Deal announced plans to privatize the state’s foster care system. The idea was supported by other top lawmakers including House Speaker David Ralston and Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle following revelations of widespread failings by the state child welfare agency. But S.B. 350 goes beyond that, to include other aspects of the child welfare system, such as case management and adoption.

However, some child welfare advocates say privatization will cost more and usher in a new set of problems.

“This is not something we can do quickly or take off the shelf what Florida did and apply it here,” said Melissa Carter, executive director of Emory University’s Barton Child Law and Policy Center. “We don’t know yet if we’re ready for this or if it’s right thing to do for our children.”

If passed, the bill calls for DFCS to submit a plan by January 2015 on how the bidding process would work. Private companies - mostly non-profits - who win the contracts will have to meet yet-to-be-established performance measurements.

The changes are contingent on the state receiving a funding waiver from the U.S. government, which currently restricts how federal money can be used to care for foster children. Changes would be phased in over a two-year period beginning July 2015.

In 2012, 152 children died despite DFCS intervention in their families. Thirteen of those, or about 9 percent, died while in foster care. Supporters say privatization will 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 believe privatization could cost more without producing better results.

Foster homes recruited, trained and supported by the state are paid an average of $19.15 daily per child, according to the Georgia Department of Human Services, while foster homes run by private agencies are paid an average of $86.91 daily.

Private agencies are more likely to ask for extra money since they tend to serve more children with special needs, according to the state. In addition to the standard daily rate, private agencies also earn a per diem to cover the costs of supporting a foster home.

About half of Georgia’s foster children currently are placed with private companies, who recruit, train, and support their own foster homes, according to Carter. But there’s been no study to determine whether private companies have room for the other half, she said.

Carter, who has studied the Florida system, said her major concern is about the variation of quality among private agencies. Some provide excellent service to children, while others fall short.

Tracey Feild, a director at the Annie E. Casey Foundation, a Baltimore-based non-profit that focuses on disadvantaged children, has researched privatization across the country. Feild, who oversees the child welfare strategy group, said privatization ends up being a more costly endeavor and success is dependant on the quality of the agencies who contract with the state.

Some states like Kansas have had success with privatization because they have strong performance measures and contract with high-performing agencies, she said. Florida is seen as less of a success story because case management is subcontracted to so many different agencies there is not a consistent philosophy on how children and families should be treated. Also, the state agency was reduced so significantly there wasn’t enough staff to provide proper oversight of contract agencies.

“You can have a good system either way,” Feild said. “But if you privatize, it can take a while to see any real improvements. And from every experience I’ve seen, services go down in the short run.”

Rachel Ewald is executive director and founder of Foster Care Support Foundation but has experience with several aspects of the child welfare system. The east Cobb resident has served as a foster parent to more than 50 children through private agencies, and her organization provides clothing and goods for 3,000 of the state’s children living in public and private homes.

Ewald says she is a Republican and a believer in free-market principles, but she doesn’t believe privatizing foster care is going to provide better services for children. In fact, she worries it could be harmful.

Ewald believes that if Georgia switches to a private system, it will encourage companies to label more foster children with mental health and behavioral issues in order to get additional state funding. She worries that label could stigmatize them for life.

“I am all for capitalism but not when it comes to putting a dollar amount on a child’s head, which is what it would do,” she said.

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