Children at risk

Legislature is moving too fast, with too little thought, in overhauling and privatizing the care of foster children in Georgia

March 1, 2014 

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DON COKER/MCT

DON COKER — KRT

A radical change in the care of foster children in Georgia is being rushed through the legislature and we are concerned.

Senate Bill 350 proposes to fully privatize the foster care system in Georgia. Private companies or non-profits would take over all services related to adoption, foster care, family reunification, and case management. The state Division of Family and Children Services (DFCS) would still conduct investigations and respond to reports of child abuse and neglect.

High-profile deaths of children who came to DFCS's attention but for whom no intervention was made point to the need to improve how DFCS operates. Governor Nathan Deal's pledge to increase the number of social workers was a great first step, especially after years of budget cuts to the foster care system.

The problem with Senate Bill 350 and its full privatization of the foster care system is that it would do nothing to address the failure of DFCS to identify and respond to children at risk of abuse and neglect.

Meaningful reform requires a study of a full range of options and rushing to legislation ignores these realities:

• Georgia's foster care system is already partially privatized. The Department of Human Services has an "Office of Provider Management" for managing contracts with private providers. One hundred percent of group home placements, 60 percent of family and child support services and 60 percent of foster care placements are already managed by private providers.

• It is not clear that existing private companies and non-profits are able to accommodate those foster children currently in DFCS foster homes.

• Full privatization of foster care does not ensure better outcomes for children. Florida, from which this legislation was taken, does not appear to offer any advantage over Georgia's public agency approach. There is no evidence whatsoever that full privatization is more effective at keeping children safe or finding permanent homes faster than Georgia's current system.

• Full privatization of foster care will probably cost more. Currently DFCS pays its foster homes $19.15 per day per child. Private providers in Georgia receive $86.91 per day per child and the state pays an additional fee for management by the private providers. The "lead agency model" adopted from Florida will cost even more by adding more layers of bureaucracy and building a complicated management structure for the administration of foster care services.

• Care and services are likely to vary widely depending on the region of the state in which the foster child resides.

There are numerous unanswered questions about Senate Bill 350. Experts in child welfare have recommended that the legislature slow down and do more research on which of several models of privatization fits the needs of our state. It has also been recommended that any approach selected be piloted in both an urban and a rural area of the state to work out any problems before full- scale implementation.

We urge the legislature to remember that this radical experiment may negatively affect the young lives in the care of the state. Please, let's take the time needed to build a system that protects and nurtures those children until they find a permanent home.

Patricia Sprinkle, a Mableton, Ga., author, has written more than 40 books, mostly Southern mysteries; www.patriciasprinkle.com.

Mary Howle, an Atlanta attorney, is a member (as is Sprinkle) of Better Courts for Kids, a child advocacy organization instrumental in the passage of Georgia Open Court Legislation SB207 that opened juvenile court hearings for abused and neglected children; www.bettercourtsforkids.org.

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