Stakeholders are weighing in on a legislative proposal with the governor’s support that would establish a fully integrated private-public partnership for some child protective services, including foster care.
Bill Hancock is the founder and CEO of a private nonprofit foster agency, FaithBridge Foster Care Inc., based in Alpharetta.
“In partnership with Hall County, we currently take Hall County children,” he said. “We’re working on building partnerships to establish a working office in Hall.”
Many Hall children placed by FaithBridge have ended up in homes in Forsyth and Fulton counties, reflecting the shortage of Hall foster parents.
Hancock said the proposed legislation would allow FaithBridge and other organizations greater breadth and flexibility in both placing kids in need of foster homes within their communities, and working to stabilize households on the child welfare radar.
“What we’re attempting to do is partner with local organizations, churches, leaders in the community so that we can keep Hall children in their community,” he said.
The Georgia legislature began discussing a proposal in November to establish the private sector role in the state’s foster care system, and Gov. Nathan Deal announced in January he would pursue that agenda.
Juvenile Judge Cliff Jolliff, of the Northeastern Judicial Circuit covering Hall and Dawson counties, said it’s key to seek out reasoned, evidence-based approaches when weighing changes.
“I am in favor of a reasoned, deliberate study to compare the pros and cons between state and private approaches,” he said.
It’s a complicated issue, he said.
“This is no easy fix. Without sufficient resources, neither system will succeed,” Jolliff said.
Hancock stressed that the legislative proposal under discussion is not a move for full privatization of the department.
“There’s no discussion of eliminating the Department of Human Services, or the Department of Children and Family Services,” he said. “The proposal being discussed is to bring greater clarity to the roles of public and private partnerships in the child-protective system.”
DFCS said the agency does not comment on potential legislation, and that the agency is “exploring all options that may improve the safety and the welfare of Georgia’s children.”
The child welfare system has swelled over the past 50 years as the demands for foster homes increased in a reactionary, rather than deliberative way, Hancock said.
“That demand has increased as that department grew larger, and each time there was a crisis, the department had the sole responsibility, whether it was new programs, new policy, a new division (or) organization,” he said.
Fifteen years ago, 95 percent of children were served in DFCS, and 5 percent were served in a private foster home; today, 52 percent of kids are in DFCS-managed foster care and 48 percent in private foster homes.
“One of the reasons we’ve seen more and more partnership between the public-private sector is because the demands on the public became so great they just need it,” Hancock said. “As we’ve moved from 5 percent to 48 percent and seen positive impacts, it has become evident that there are some real advantages.”
Hancock said he thinks moving that figure to 100 percent would mean better services for kids through higher standards of accountability.
“Right now the current state is that DFCS has supervision over 100 percent of the kids in care, and they hold the 48 percent in private homes to a very high standard of performance through regulation and outcome accountability,” he said. “That level of accountability doesn’t exist within the system.”
Although the proposal moves toward 100 percent privatization of foster kids, certain responsibilities will be left with DFCS, including investigations.
“DFCS would have investigative responsibility, still take all child abuse calls, investigate those calls, and petition the court for custody if the evidence meets the level for child abuse and abandonment,” Hancock said.
Several advocates have voiced nervousness at the relative pace of the discussions, he said.
“It’s not the content or the merits of the proposal, but the timing seems very fast,” he said. “Well, there’s a reason why there’s a sense of urgency.”
The state needs a spending waiver from the federal government this year in order to make privatization a possibility, Hancock said.
“That waiver has a deadline, and that deadline is September 2014. Georgia has to state their intent to ask for a waiver,” he said. “There’s a limited number of waivers this year, and there’s always more states applying.”
Hancock said the recent juvenile justice reform, passed in last year’s legislative session and implemented in 2014, is an example of working smart for kids.
“The juvenile justice reform ... has really positioned Georgia to do far better work with children who are coming before the court, and perhaps can be better maintained at home than locked up at juvenile center — being able to provide services rather than just detention,” he said.
Hancock said the similarities stem from similar values that inform the change.
“Georgia has moved toward juvenile justice reform in order to be more family-centric, educational, development, and less punitive,” he said. “This next move for DHS is really moving in line with that — community-based, family-based, localized solutions.”
Hancock said keeping a keen eye toward better outcomes should be ideal in any system.
“Any solution should be determined by outcomes,” he said. “Not inputs. Not the process. Outcomes.”