Privatizing foster care

Moderated by Tom Sabulis

The General Assembly is considering legislation that will put foster care largely in the hands of private agencies, even with regard to case management. Today we hear from child-law experts who say our state’s outcomes for abused children are already better than Florida’s, which has the model Georgia is looking to replicate. A former Obama Administration official familiar with Florida’s law says privatization is the way to go.

Commenting is open.

Privatizing is not a proven reform plan

By Melissa Dorris Carter and Andrew Barclay

Is privatization of child welfare services good public policy for Georgia’s children and families?

That’s the question provoked by Senate Bill 350, and there is no simple answer. The rapid early progress of the proposal, which would require that the Division of Family and Children Services bid out child welfare services statewide through contracts with community agencies, should not be taken as an indication of support among the providers, advocates, administrators and practitioners who know Georgia’s child welfare system best.

Most important, its political popularity is no assurance that this approach will result in better outcomes for our abused children.

Privatization is not a new concept in child welfare. To a greater or lesser extent, all states outsource care, placement and service delivery to private providers. Almost half of the children in Georgia’s foster care system are placed with private agencies today and, as in most states, millions are spent each year to purchase a range of services and supports for biological and adoptive families.

Only two states have gone as far as SB 350 would require, which includes the transfer of case management responsibilities from a public agency to private agencies. Modeled after Florida’s laws, SB 350 would authorize up to 15 lead agencies to provide services and placement directly and subcontract with other providers for additional capacity. DFCS would remain responsible for accepting and responding to child abuse reports and contract monitoring.

Many interests are fueling the zeal for further privatization of our child welfare system. Our interests are in better outcomes for children, and there is no empirical support to suggest that a privatized system is better than a public service delivery model.

Georgia’s abused and neglected children are twice as safe as maltreated children in Florida, despite that state’s decade-long experience with a fully privatized system. In other critical outcome areas like reunification and adoption, Georgia also meets or exceeds national performance standards. An objective, data-driven assessment shows that Georgia’s publicly administered child welfare system has achieved results similar to or better than those Florida has achieved.

We all share the value of improving outcomes for children and families. We feel an emotional urgency to reform the system that is responsible for those outcomes. The truth is, however, that child welfare systems are dynamic and uniquely complex. State differences matter. Applying a politically popular model from another state will not fix systemic problems in Georgia related to funding, staffing shortages, inadequate service capacity and lack of coordination across systems.

What is more likely to produce the desired improvements is a systematic, inclusive and purposeful examination of our child welfare system. The right process and pace will produce targeted strategies that reflect a shared vision and commitment to change. That is the kind of bold leadership that Georgia’s most vulnerable children need.

Melissa Dorris Carter is the executive director of the Barton Child Law and Policy Center at Emory University. Andrew Barclay is chairman of the Barton Center’s advisory committee.

Florida’s model can work in Georgia, too

By George Sheldon

Abused and neglected kids need the hope of a better life. The reform being debated in Georgia will accomplish just that. I know. I saw the transformation firsthand in Florida.

Shortly after I began serving as head of Florida’s Department of Children and Families, I met with 15 young people who had been part of the child welfare system. Nearly three hours later, I learned more from those kids about child welfare than I had from any law enforcement agency, lawyer or policymaker.

I also left with a newfound appreciation for the public-private partnership Florida created with local child welfare providers, a partnership that helped create the most normal life possible for children at risk. The results have been incredible for the state and, more importantly, for the kids.

Florida’s child welfare system was labeled a national embarrassment, but the state in 2006 passed a community-based care model. By 2011, overall adoptions increased by 46 percent, and the number of children placed in institutions dropped by 65 percent. The number of kids safely reunited with their families increased by 13 percent, and the adoption rate among children with disabilities skyrocketed by 92 percent.

The number of kids in foster care declined by 36 percent as funding for family prevention services tripled — while overall spending remained flat.

Florida’s public-private child welfare partnership changed thousands of lives. In Georgia, the state is embracing its own child welfare transformation. Based on Florida’s successful model, this reform will create a compassionate and dynamic child welfare system truly worthy of Georgia kids.

The reform recognizes a key truth: A government-run child welfare bureaucracy is not responsive enough, flexible enough or kid-focused enough. But partnering with local private agencies and nonprofits, as Georgia’s reform accomplishes, means at-risk children and families are served quicker, and with a wider-range of services tailored to their complex needs.

The reform empowers local agencies with important responsibilities like case management, preventive services and emergency services. It keeps the state in charge of investigating abuse and neglect allegations and referring at-risk kids for services. Only government should have the authority to remove children from their homes. But the state can’t do it all and can’t do it alone, which is where the public-private partnership excels.

These local, private agencies are also held to greater accountability. The reform requires agencies to meet various outcomes emphasizing education, health and stability.

Georgia’s foster care system has improved over the past several years, but for permanent success, the local community must be empowered to help kids and families.

I’ve seen what works and what doesn’t in states across the country. Florida’s reform works. Georgia, with its public-private partnership, can have a kid-focused child welfare system that works, too.

George Sheldon was acting assistant secretary for children and families for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services from 2011 to 2013, and secretary of Florida’s Department of Children and Families from 2008 to 2011.

One comment Add your comment


February 22nd, 2014
7:06 pm

Public vs private provision of services to foster care children are secondary to the overall accountability of successful outcomes. There are many non caring workers in private agencies as there are many in public agencies. Private agencies have a NEED to maintain a census in order to thrive. As long as each child has a “rate” and caretaker/agency/foster parent have a dependency on such rates, the very thin line between commodity and human service can unnoticeably dissipate in the process of “welfaring” the child… has been magnified within the negatively plagued image of social services and foster care.

The incentives for successful outcomes are deficient. Keeping in mind that it is most important to understand or clearly define “successful” outcomes. Current ideal outcomes, resultant of best practice formulas, are really just standard and basic. Adoption, reunification and the lowest level of care objective of placing a child with a family has become the measure of outcome satisfaction. The longevity of permanency should really be the actual outcome and measures of success.

Successful placement into a family can not be deemed “permanent” for quite some time and often much longer than six month trial periods. Marriages between fully grown adults who may have known each other years before marrying often require more than six months to adjust to a new and “permanent” life.

Until “successful outcomes” can be effectively defined to include the complexity, longevity and fiscal responsibility of building permanent relationships, systems, whether public or private will continue to NEED new models. And so child WELFARE will continue to be just that.