Bill To Privatize State Foster Care System Passes Senate

Audio version of this story here.

A Republican-sponsored bill that would turn much of Georgia’s child welfare system over to private organizations passed the state Senate Tuesday, mostly along party lines.As heard on the radio

In presenting SB 350, co-sponsor Republican Sen. Renee Unterman (R-Buford) showed a picture of Emani Moss on a projection screen. Gwinnett County police say the 10-year-old was starved to death by her father and step mother late last year, and prosecutors are currently seeking the death penalty for the couple in the case.

The state Division of Family and Children Services has been highly criticized over Emani’ death, specifically for not thoroughly investigating more recent claims of child abuse despite the fact that Emani had a significant case history with the division.

Unterman has said Emani’s death has been her motivation for the bill, a statement she repeated Tuesday in her presentation. She said private organizations would do a better job keeping track of outcomes for children in the foster care system, like graduation rates and relocations, as well as provide more localized community support for each child. 

“I have seen the minority party come up to this well and talk about this broken infrastructure and what is the majority party going to do about it,” Unterman said. “And now we’re here today.”

The bill would model Georgia’s child welfare system after Florida’s. Private organizations would bid for state contracts to provide services like foster care, adoption and case management. DFCS would maintain authority to investigate neglect and abuse claims. It would also oversee the state contractors, ensuring they meet federal and state standards, as well as yet-to-be-determined performance measures.

Democrats like Sen. Nan Orrack (D-Atlanta) argue the bill wouldn’t do anything to prevent deaths like Emani’s, since the 10-year-old died in her parents’ custody, not in foster care.

“We can bemoan the fate of these children, but let’s look at the child protective services statistics, and I’ll tell you this bill does nothing to change these statistics,” said Orrack.

Democratic Sen. Vincent Fort (D-Atlanta) in effect accused Republicans of using Emani’s death and other similar cases to push a privatization agenda, rather than addressing lapses in protective services.

“I think it is cynical to use the deaths of these children for a bill that had nothing to do with the deaths of those children,” Fort said.

Fort then likened the bill to a favor for local businessman Rick Jackson, a major proponent of the foster care privatization bill who’s also donated money to Gov. Nathan Deal. The governor is facing re-election this year.

“Do any of us think we’d be at this point if $54,000 had not been shelled out to the governor’s campaign. I think not,” Fort said.

Unterman called that claim “ridiculous.” She said the democratic opposition comes down to a philosophical divide over the size of government.

“One side loves it, one side hates it. Well guess what, we’re right back to that on this issue, because you want to grow the government. We’ve grown the government with Obamacare. Do you want to grow the government to take care of children more?” Unterman said.

The bill passed 31 to 18.

It now moves to the House.