ATLANTA — In the fall of 2013, 10-year-old Emani Moss was found dead in a trash can near her home just outside of Atlanta, allegedly burned and starved by her parents. A month earlier, a 12-year-old boy was allegedly beaten to death by his father, also near the Atlanta area. In both cases, state workers had previously determined, despite warnings signs, that the children were safe to remain with their families.
The two cases, along with a number of deaths in the foster care system the previous year, have thrown Georgia’s child welfare system into the spotlight, prompting some to call for reform.
Last fall, a group of Georgia state senators began to meet to study ways to improve the foster care system. And one option – privatization – has been quickly gaining speed.
Bill Hancock, founder and CEO of FaithBridge Foster Care in Alpharetta, Ga., and another healthcare executive has been pushing for a private-public partnership model, where the state contracts its child welfare services to private agencies.
“We shouldn’t settle for incremental changes. We need reform,” said Hancock. “I believe Georgia has done a great job with private providers in the state of Georgia, but we can do better.”
He says the the model would allow private organizations like his to focus on community-based approaches to child welfare by garnering support from local churches and leaders.
The issue has also been brought up because the window to apply for a federal waiver expires this year. The Title IV-E waiver allows states more flexibility in spending federal dollars on child welfare services, and other states have already taken advantage of it, he said.
“I don’t think we’re moving too fast. I think we’ve waited too late to act,” Hancock said.
Legislation is expected to be introduced this session, which runs until May, but some child welfare advocates say the talks are happening too quickly and that it’s too soon to know if the option is right for Georgia.
“It does seem to be going a little fast,” said Pat Willis, executive director of Voices for Georgia’s Children. “It just takes time to figure out what works and what doesn’t, and it’s a big complex system to begin with.”
Georgia has about 7,700 children currently living in foster care.
Full privatization of the foster care system has been done in states such as Kansas, Nebraska and Florida, and partially done in other states like Colorado and Illinois. While the state continues to be in charge of investigations and judges still decide whether or not to remove a child from the home, private agencies take charge over all other aspects of child welfare — such as foster care placement and case management services.
Proponents of privatization have cited Florida as a key example of where privatization has worked and where child welfare outcomes have improved.
“When you see where Florida has come from, what you see is momentum,” Hancock said.
But it’s hard to prove that privatization was the cause of improvements, says Melissa Carter, executive director of the Barton Child Law and Policy Center in Atlanta. On a whole, Georgia has actually done better on child welfare outcomes than Florida has, she said.
“Outcomes that Florida credits to privatization were outcomes we were able to realize without privatization,” Carter said.
Georgia has been able to reduce its foster care population by nearly half since 2004, she said.
And while states like Florida have done well under privatization, others have not.
In 2009, Nebraska began to fully privatize its foster care system after poor performance rates and a lawsuit claiming the state wasn’t protecting children in need. (See the Youth Today story.) But within months of implementation, several of the lead agencies contracted by the government withdrew their agreements, citing it was financially unsustainable to continue.
“It really harmed our service infrastructure,” said Sarah Helvey, child welfare director at Nebraska Appleseed, a nonprofit advocacy organization.
“It created instability in the system and children didn’t receive services,” she said.
Helvey says the implementation happened too quickly without sufficient research.
“You have to have really good data about the number of kids and what their needs are and really good cost estimates,” she said.
Nebraska spent more than $30 million than planned, and has to repay the federal government $22 million. The state also took back its control over child welfare services, except for in a pilot program in Omaha.
Madelyn Freundlich, a consultant on child welfare issues and former policy director at Children’s Rights, a New York-based advocacy organization, says the argument that privatization is more cost-effective isn’t always true. She says that states that have implemented privatized models have often underestimated costs.
“It’s not equivalent to privatizing garbage pickup. It’s pretty easy to know what that’s going to cost,” Freundlich said.
A 2010 report by Casey Family Programs found that states did not save costs after privatization. Kansas and Florida both doubled their child welfare budgets in the first 10 years of transitioning.
Carter, of the Barton Child Law and Policy Center, says with states like Nebraska in mind, any state pursuing privatization should tread carefully.
“When people want public accountability, everyone just wants to reform it,” Carter said. “We’re concerned about the process and making sure to have a thoughtful, deliberate and inclusive process.”