Local

Foster Care Privatization Bill Clears Key Hurdle

Credit Sen. Fran Millar

A bill to privatize the state’s foster care system cleared a hurdle Thursday after it was approved by a Senate subcommittee.As heard on the radio

The bill, which would model Georgia’s child welfare system after Florida’s, would turn some state-run programs over to private companies by contracting out services like adoption, case management, family reunification and foster care. Corresponding state services would be shut down.

“I do believe the system is broken,” said state Sen. Renee Unterman (R-Buford), the bill’s co-sponsor. “When you turn on the news every night, and you see a child dying, it is a product of the system. The system is broken.”

The Division of Family and Children services currently oversees the state’s child welfare system. In 2012, DFCS said 152 children who had some kind of contact with the agency died, 13 of which were in foster care at the time. Proponents of the privatized model say the overhaul would keep children in the system safer while also improving delivery of services.

Under the bill, DFCS would be required to submit a plan by January of next year as to how the contracting process would work, with a 2-year rollout beginning the following July. The division would maintain oversight of the contractors, ensuring they meet federal and state standards, as well as yet-to-be-determined performance measures.

Unterman said she was motivated by the death of 10-year-old Emani Moss**, whose case was screened out by DFCS despite the girl’s significant history with the division.

“Are we supposed to sit back and let another Emani Moss case come up and say, ‘Whoops, I’m sorry that life didn’t matter,'” Unterman said. “And the system continues to go, and the system continues to function like it is. I’m not willing to do that.”

But under the bill, DFCS would continue to investigate abuse and neglect cases. 

Rachel Ewald heads the nonprofit Foster Care Support Foundation, which works with DFCS to find foster homes and provide parent training. She said the investigation side is where lawmakers should be focusing.

“These children that died, they were not in the foster care homes, so that’s not going to stop – this bill is not going to stop those children from dying. We’ll see the same stories,” she said at the subcommittee hearing Thursday.

Melissa Carter, who heads Emory’s Barton Child Law and Policy Center, said there’s no indication that private organizations will sign on to this idea – a crucial part of the plan’ success. She said the massive overhaul also could cost the state more money, a point lawmakers concede is possible.

“Those are things we just don’t know yet, and in fact most of us who are stakeholders of this system, feel like we may not be ready for this just yet,” Carter said.

Carter said half of the state’s 7,700 foster children are already in private facilities. She said she’s concerned with what she called the “aggressive pace” of the rollout.

“The child welfare system is a complex system, and so to do large-scale reform and something this transformative in this amount of time creates a lot of anxiety for all of us,” Carter said.

But lawmakers say the pace is necessary because of a looming deadline to apply for a Title IV-E waiver, which loosens up restrictions on how states can spend federal dollars on child welfare programs. This year is the last year the federal government is issuing the waivers, a process bill co-sponsor Sen. Fran Millar (R-Atlanta) said is very competitive. Should the bill pass, DFCS would be required to submit a proposal for that waiver by April.

“We have to do a piece of legislation,” Millar said. “Here’s the reality check: Everyone’s who’s gotten the waiver has a bill. We have to do a bill here. If people say we’re rushing this thing, well, yeah, because this is our last chance to get the waiver.”

The bill is contingent on the state receiving the IV-E waiver, which Millar characterized as “necessary.” Millar said the looser restrictions on spending federal dollars are needed to help with the rollout.  

But Carter said legislation isn’t necessary to apply for the waiver.

“Only three states [have passed legislation.],” Carter said. “And there have been more than 30 waivers granted.”

The bill now moves to a full Health and Human Services committee, which is chaired by Unterman. 

**Correction

The original audio version incorrectly identifies Emani Moss as being five years old at the time of her death. She was 10.