By Mike Klein
Has Georgia chosen a fast road toward its foster care privatization pilot project when a slower, more deliberate road might produce a better outcome? Is this the tortoise and hare story again?
“All of us in state government at one time or another have been given an order to get something done in less time than you need,” says Mark A. Washington. “You work to achieve that but if more time was possible to design it differently or respond differently, I think kids would benefit.”
Washington is managing partner of The Washington Group, a Georgia-based consultancy that works in juvenile justice, foster care, managed care and other policy sectors. Washington was Georgia’s state Division of Family and Children Services director in 2008 – 2010 after three years with the same responsibilities in Kentucky. Today he asks, “Why are we moving so fast?”
Washington and other child welfare advocates met with state officials this week in Atlanta in the only face-to-face opportunity they will have to question officials about the foster care project. State employees were about one-third of less than thirty attendees who were sparsely sprinkled throughout a large auditorium. Attendance was optional which might explain the crowd size.
This spring the state announced a foster care pilot project would start in many north – northwest counties (Region 3) and eastern counties (Region 5). The state request-for-proposals was posted June 23, the informational meeting was held June 30 and documents must be filed with the state no later than July 18. The period from RFP to final submission is not even one month.
This is moving fast and there were plenty of reasonable questions at the Monday meeting:
Does the state know whether existing foster care families in Regions 3 and 5 are willing to transfer from state Division of Family and Children Services supervision to a contracted private agency supervising a foster care child? “We haven’t surveyed them,” said a state child welfare services official. “We hope they all would be willing.” That means the state does not know.
Washington asked whether the state would provide information regarding the therapeutic needs and the level of care assigned to each child in Regions 3 and 5. This would include behavioral health and other medical service required by kids who would be transferred from state to so-called private supervision. The answer: No, that was not planned. Later a state official told Washington that his suggestion could be considered.
Would the state be willing to enter into contracts that are longer than one state fiscal year? The answer: No, contracts will be for one year but a successful supplier could be renewed annually through June 30, 2019, after review. One year is how most state contracts are written. BUT: Entering into new relationships this complicated often requires substantial upfront financial investment and greater financial guarantees than you can put into an annual contract.
Would an agency that manages foster care services become financially responsible for costs if the numbers of foster children or services they require exceed estimates? The answer: No, an agency will be reimbursed for numbers of foster children and their services.
Here’s another question: Will any of this make Georgia kids safer?
Recent headlines about Georgia child deaths were not generated from foster care. Two kids who died last year were in child protective services investigations, but they were not part of foster care. Both kids were living with the primary adults in their lives, and that was unfortunate. A child who died this year also was in protective services and was not involved in foster care.
Jean Logan is a former Florida deputy assistant secretary for children, youth and families and earlier, she worked in Wisconsin children services. Today Logan’s firm Strategic Partners consults widely in the public sector. “The majority of the impact on whether kids get hurt or killed is not going to happen in this (foster care) contract,” Logan after Monday’s meeting.
Logan said privatization could “improve the quality of the places that they are living and their wellbeing which is something that child welfare has done very poorly but it’s not going to impact the things that hit the paper which are kids dying or being injured because that is happening prior to (foster care). In the South my experience has been headlines drive public policy.”
Foster care privatization — how it should be organized, how the financial model should work, whether some services would be unnecessarily duplicated and much more — is certain to generate many headlines for months. Whether it generates good public policy is discussion for another day. There is this advice from Mark Washington: “In Georgia, our investment needs to start aligning with our expectations. We can learn from other states’ experience. Let’s start smart, start small.”