(Update: Thursday morning the Senate Health & Human Services Committee chaired by Sen. Renee Unterman briefly considered attaching the SB 350 version of foster care reform to HB 990, the House bill that would require legislative approval to change Medicaid eligibility. The discussion was short. “I support the foster care bill that we passed and I am disappointed that the House hasn’t taken it up on their side,” said Senate President Pro Tempore David Shafer, who then quashed the proposal to combine SB 350 with HB 990. “I would urge that we continue to find other vehicles for foster care,” Shafer added. No House or Senate votes on foster care legislation are anticipated today, which is Day 38 on the Legislature calendar.)
By MIKE KLEIN
There could be at least one more version of foster care reform legislation before the General Assembly ends next Thursday. That became clear this week when House Judiciary passed its own substitute rather than vote on a Senate bill that would privatize all foster care starting in mid- 2015. Critics said child protective services are the state’s biggest problem, not foster care, and they are united that foster care reform legislation is moving too quickly.
Senate Bill 350 would phase-in expanded community-based foster care services starting July 1 next year, affecting about half of some 8,000 children who are in state foster care custody. The transition would last two years with full implementation not later than June 30, 2017. SB 350 introduced by Sen. Renee Unterman passed the Senate 31-to-18. State child welfare officials would retain investigations authority but would no longer oversee foster care.
The House substitute proposed by Judiciary Chairman Rep. Wendell Willard would require a two-year pilot project in three of the state’s 15 established service regions. The state Division of Family and Children Services (DFCS) would select the regions. No more than 35 percent of a region’s services could be privatized during the pilot project that would start July 1 this year.
Willard hosted a stakeholders meeting last week, in essence, a public vetting on Senate Bill 350. “The thing that kept coming through the comments I heard was people are in favor of DFCS looking at alternative ways of delivering services,” Willard said. “The question was the timing of how we build on that as opposed to saying do everything for the private providers.”
Senate Bill 350 evolved from a foster care working group established by Lt. Governor Casey Cagle. The group heard extensive testimony in several meetings last fall prior to the start of the 2014 General Assembly. Sen. Unterman served on the working group and she has tried to allay concerns of those who believe the foster care reform timetable is being rushed.
“A lot of people say we’re moving too fast but when you look at the plan it’s a two-year-plan,” Unterman said at Tuesday’s House Judiciary hearing. “It’s not like overnight you blink your eyes and all of a sudden you’re going into further privatization.”
The original Senate bill required that DFCS officials would submit their privatization plan to Gov. Nathan Deal and the Legislature by January 1, 2015 with phase-in implementation to start six months later. Stakeholders complained it said nothing about how to involve foster care providers in that discussion.
Tuesday Unterman proposed an SB 350 amendment to create a Child Welfare Services Planning Commission with 11 members “who shall represent local community participation,” for example, community-based provider organizations, current foster care parents and the faith-based community.
However, the amendment did not give the proposed commission authority to make binding decisions and in that regard, its work would be primarily advisory only. House Judiciary did not vote on the amendment.
The Legislature has just three session dates until Sine Die: Day 38 on Thursday, Day 39 next Tuesday and then the Big One: Day 40 next Thursday. This legislation will likely need every possible available moment of House and Senate negotiation and compromise if any agreement is to be reached.