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Broken Bonds: Where do we go from here?
Crisis has no easy fix beyond finding more homes
Foster Care Worker Ami Montoya works the phones Friday afternoon at the United Methodist Children’s Home. The Children’s Home recruits and trains foster families and creates a partnership between the child’s birth and foster families to increase the likelihood of the child returning to his or her birth parents permanently.

Other solutions to an overburdened system are less clear.

Before it was halted earlier this month, Georgia was preparing for a pilot program to privatize foster care in two regions of the state, Division of Family and Children Services’ Region 3 and Region 5. Region 3 includes Floyd and Bartow counties, the worst and second worst, respectively, for a lack of space available for foster children.

Region 5 centers around Clarke County, the seventh worst in that same category, all according to September 2014 data from DFCS. The rankings do not consider group housing.

The pilot program, in simple terms, was for the state to contract private agencies in the two districts to manage foster care services under the supervision of DFCS.

According to transcripts from the Georgia Department of Administrative Services, contracts were expected to begin Oct. 6. However, on Sept. 30, a notice of cancellation was issued by Bernard Joy, associate category manager for the Georgia Department of Administrative Services.

The state had “limited responses to the proposal,” and it was determined that “pricing exceeded budgeted amounts,” according to the cancellation notice.

“After we heard from some providers, they told us that they felt like the timeline and the scope of the request didn’t allow for a successful project. So what we’re doing is working with the Child Welfare Reform Council to make sure that we can move forward and get the outcomes we need,” said Ashley Fielding, director of the Office of Legislative Affairs and Communications for the Department of Human Services.

The Child Welfare Reform Council, with its members named in April of this year, includes legislators, child welfare advocates and education officials. Georgia Rep. Wendell Willard, R-Sandy Springs, said in September that a goal of the group is to reduce the DFCS caseworker average load to 15, with one supervisor for every five workers.

DFCS foster care caseworkers shoulder an average of 25 cases in Hall County, while those working investigations often take on 35 cases, according to September 2014 DFCS data. The state budget allowed for an additional 175 caseworkers statewide as of July 1, with some already starting in Hall County.

Other states, including Florida, which has a public-private partnership for foster care, have provided a case study for members of the council and other child welfare stakeholders.

“I think they’ve looked at Florida. I think they’ve also looked at some other states that have had issues with placement, foster care and the private homes situation,” Willard said. “They’re looking to get a better understanding of how these operations can function with the department.”

While the state hopes to rebid the project again, the need for more foster homes in Northeast and Northwest Georgia remains a serious concern.

“We will engage our existing providers in those areas to figure out a way to address our current capacity, specifically the beds we have available in those areas, and see if we can recruit more parents in the meantime,” Fielding said.

Specifically, the Fanning Institute will take charge on a “public-private foster care collaborative” in Region 5, meaning further partnership between public and foster care providers to find more homes. For Region 3, DFCS is collaborating with the faith community, with religious leaders working to develop foster parents.

How it would have worked

Providers bidding for the privatization project needed at least seven years of experience and to provide audit information, according to documents listed on the proposal Web portal.

Bidders were to be scored and evaluated on requirements before an intent to award the bid was issued.

But the plan to privatize foster care and adoption scares some.

Jean Logan, who served on the Community Based Care Advisory Committee during Florida’s nationally watched switch to privatization, said she is “not hopeful” about the plans Georgia has laid out thus far.

“I think it’s the wrong solution to the wrong problem,” she said. “It doesn’t address the problem areas that create difficulties in the system.”

She said she thinks the plan would instead burden private agencies with issues the government can’t seem to fix, such as timeliness of interventions, advanced technology, better communication and specifically, the way cases are investigated and how case plans are developed.

“That’s the heart of the problem,” she said.

It was one she felt was addressed, eventually, during Florida’s long and lumbered battle toward a better child welfare system.

She said she thinks a move toward privatization can be good for Georgia, if they go about it the right way.

“I think what we need to see is a move to privatization, but on a more thoughtful path,” she said. “But that still won’t fix some of the basic problems. It’s underfunded from start to finish. (The government) wants to keep the costs as low as possible.”

Logan expressed some of her concerns at a pre-bid conference May 30 in Atlanta.

“So to make sure that I understand this, the successful bidder has to be up and running Oct. 6, even though they don’t know going in what percentage of the kids they are going to be serving have behavioral health, and they are going to have nine months to prove that they be successful? It doesn’t look like a successful design to me,” Logan said.

Joy responded, saying, “We do not anticipate that on the day we award the contract that someone is going to be able to march right in, like Venus on the half shell, fully developed, riding up on the waves.”

‘More nimble’ vs. ‘one size fits all’

Bill Hancock, president of FaithBridge Foster Care, said he thinks the solution includes privatization.

“I do think a public-private partnership can work,” he said. “I think it has to work.”

He sees many flaws in the public system.

“A public agency tends to be very top-down by design,” he said. “It tends to create more of a one-size-fits-all policy environment, where a private, community-based organization is more likely to be able to adapt their service models to the local needs of family and children.”

He thinks the first step should be to provide more opportunities for smaller agencies, as they can more quickly respond to trends.

“Large bureaucracies, the larger they get, the more energy and effort goes into maintaining the organization, where community-based organizations are more nimble. They can adapt to the community changes more readily,” he said.

He thinks the plans laid out by the state are a good first step, but he wants to see more from the legislature.

“I think that the move is a good move,” he said. “But I think that the step toward a privatization in organization is very different from community-based care. Privatization is about the state contracting for services. What I’m advocating for, that’s part of it, where you do outsource and contract with private agencies, but the next step is to equip and inform and resource communities to actually find their own solution to their family crises in their own community.”

More homes needed most

While DFCS first attempts to place children in the homes it has recruited, sometimes there isn’t space. A handful of agencies, such as FaithBridge and the United Methodist Children’s Home, recruit families to keep children close to their biological parents.

“Usually we get a call from Hall County DFCS just needing a placement. They usually will seek out their homes first, but a lot of times they don’t have the available homes,” said Sondra Rogers, supervisor of United Methodist’s Gainesville office that serves 13 counties.

With 13 families in Gainesville and 18 children served through the Gainesville office, Rogers said the importance of keeping children closer to their parents reduces the strain on everyone.

“Mom and Dad are able to see the child in the same county, and it makes that transition a whole lot easier for everybody involved,” Rogers said.

While it does have Methodist in the name, Rogers said parents are asked to respect the religious observances of the child prior to placement. Other faith-based agencies have the same practice.

For cases of physical and sexual abuse, therapeutic foster care is essential, an area that is lacking to Georgia DFCS interim director Bobby Cagle.

“A lot of the children, especially the children that are higher needs, are in private agencies receiving the care,” said Sally Buchanan, CEO of Creative Community Services.

For 32 years, Creative Community Services has worked in therapeutic foster care, developing homes that will provide heavy attention to the child. For this reason, families without kids or with children who have left the nest are vital.

“When you’re recruiting for those particular kids ... a lot of homes we’re trying to look for are families that don’t have small children. We don’t want to do that because the kids need such individualized attention,” Buchanan said.

With four homes in Hall County, Buchanan said family consultants work with eight children, a sliver of what a DFCS caseworker handles. Homes usually have one child unless a second can also be matched.

Though DFCS said it hopes to reopen the privatization process after discussions with the Child Welfare Reform Council, attention to costs and other logistics will be key, Buchanan said.

“When you ask someone to take over a whole region, you’re really talking about a lot of money when you’re talking about what the actual cost is to provide that care,” she said. “You pay your foster parents because you want them to be available at all times for the child.”