Tarren Bragdon and Benita M. Dodd: Better care for our children

February 7, 2014 

For a child who is being abused and neglected every day, every hour, every minute counts. Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal and State Sen. Renee Unterman are leading the charge to improve Georgia's child welfare system, building upon proven reforms that are right for children who enter the foster system.

As individuals touched by the system -- Tarren Bragdon is an adoptive parent; Benita Dodd has foster sisters -- the authors understand all too well the clarity of the goal.

From personal experience, these authors understand the need for Georgia's child welfare system to be quick to respond to allegations of abuse, to allow families to remain together when possible through strong support services and, when necessary, to remove a child from an abusive home and find that child a loving foster family and -- ultimately, if necessary -- loving adoptive parents.

The goals of reform are life-saving:

Embrace a proven model of a public-private partnership that protects the child and reduces abuse.

• Transform child welfare from a slow, bureaucratic-controlled system centered around government to a dynamic, rapid-responding private, local system focused on the child and the family.

• Free Georgia from an inflexible federal funding model that rewards states for keeping children trapped in the foster care system.

• Remove roadblocks that prevent the state from effectively determining the children and families who need services, while empowering accountable, private-sector and community-based organizations to achieve better outcomes for children and families in need.

It's time to move forward with these important reforms.

The state of Georgia currently runs all aspects of child welfare, but government can't do it alone.

Although the state contracts with private agencies for a limited number of services, too often local communities and private agencies are kept at arm's distance -- or shut out -- exactly when children are most in need of help.

Such bureaucracy holds back help for the children. If someone finds an innovative opportunity to better serve children, funding and approval require a long journey of bureaucracy and red tape, delaying the positive impacts of a bold new idea.

That's wrong, and Georgia's children -- endangered children -- deserve better.

Worse, an immoral and impersonal federal funding approach means that if Georgia reduces the number of children languishing in foster care and increases adoptions, the state loses funding -- which is what has happened in Georgia over the past several years.

What system rewards discouraging a loving, forever family for a child?

Governor Deal and Senator Unterman's reform is vital. Georgia would be able to revise its funding arrangement with the federal government so the state has the freedom and flexibility to design a child welfare system that promotes better health, safety and opportunity for at-risk kids. A transformed system would tap into Georgia's culture of strong communities with local public-private partnerships empowered to serve the children and families who need help.

With this "Right For Kids" reform, the state could contract with private child welfare agencies to provide all the services needed for a child or family referred by the state. That includes foster care, domestic violence intervention, supervised visitation, mentoring services and home visits.

This bold transformation sought in Georgia has worked already: Since 2006, Florida has seen phenomenal success with its Right For Kids reform:

• Florida's overall adoption rate has increased 46 percent.

• For children with disabilities, the adoption rate skyrocketed 92 percent.

• Adoptions sped up, with the portion of adoptions from foster care within two years up 53 percent.

• Overall, the number of children in Florida's foster care system on any given day is down 36 perfect.

Children find loving, permanent families without languishing in foster care. And the total number of families served is higher as families are kept together more often.

These are the outcomes of a child welfare system that works right and Georgia's children and families deserve nothing less.

Even better, this reform does even more for Georgia, thanks to lessons learned from the Florida model.

For example, Florida's law restricts the amount of unused funding that can be reinvested into family preservation and prevention services, which reduces the opportunities for agencies to safely keep families together. Georgia would reinvest all dedicated funds for families, freeing local communities to make robust investments into critical family preservation and prevention strategies.

This reform is long overdue. While some defend the status quo, everyone knows -- and from personal experience, so do these authors - that the current system needs real, child- family- and community-focused improvements.

Every hour, every minute counts for Georgia's foster children. Waste no time: Advance reform that empowers communities, works to keep families together and, most of all, provides Georgia's children with a future filled with hope, opportunity and love.

Benita M. Dodd, vice president of Georgia Public Policy Foundation, an independent think tank that proposes market-oriented approaches to public policy to improve the lives of Georgians; benitadodd@georgiapolicy.org. Tarren Bragdon, president and chief executive officer of the nonp[rofit Foundation for Government Accountability; www.floridafga.org.

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