Tragedy has again struck Texas’s most vulnerable charges—its foster children. A 4-year-old boy and his 6-year-old sister both drowned while visiting Lake Georgetown with their foster parents on Sunday. Such horrors typically prompt calls for reform, but these particular deaths have the potential to disrupt controversial changes to the foster care system that are already underway. That’s because the agency that placed the children in their foster home is Providence Kids, a sister company of Providence Service Corporation, one of the major contractors Texas recently hired to take over and privatize a large swath of its foster care system under a privatization scheme called “foster care redesign.” (Read “Fostering Neglect,” the Observer’s June 2014 feature on foster care redesign here.) Under redesign, large lead agencies oversee dozens of private child-placing agencies, and the deaths call into question whether private contractors can effectively manage such agencies—even the ones they own.
The two children, originally from Waco, had lived with the foster family since August. Georgetown police say the children were playing a breath-holding game in two to three feet of water about 10 to 15 feet from the shore, according to press accounts. After the pair failed to surface for several minutes, a 12-year-old who also lived in the home went looking for them and found the bodies. The victims had two other siblings, a 1-year-old girl and a 22-month-old boy, who lived with the foster family but have since been moved. No names have been released.
The Department of Family and Protective Services (DFPS) is investigating the deaths. “This is an unspeakable tragedy,” said DFPS Commissioner Judge John Specia in a statement on Monday. “We will find out exactly what happened, and whether or not it could have been prevented. Foster children must be kept safe.”
One other foster child, 11-month-old Orien Hamilton, died in state custody this fiscal year. She was crushed to death by her foster mother’s ex-husband. Seven foster children died of abuse or neglect in Texas in the 2013 fiscal year.
Like almost all foster kids in Texas, the children who drowned were placed in their foster home by a private child-placing agency that recruits, trains and supervises foster families. DFPS has stopped placements with Providence Kids until it finishes its investigation. Providence Kids has 29 foster children placed in eight homes in Central Texas, and the department says Child Protective Services will visit each home as a precaution.
Texas has hundreds of private child-placing agencies, but Providence Kids is unique. It shares a childcare license with Providence Service Corporation of Texas, the for-profit company recently contracted by the state to oversee all the other private child-placing agencies in a vast 60-county area of West Texas.
Redesign is controversial for several reasons, including that it places a layer of bureaucracy between the state and its foster kids, distributes the same budget money among more parties—some of which, like Providence, have to turn a profit—and does not include the increased training and oversight that stakeholders say would prevent neglect and abuse. So far, the state has rolled out redesign in two regions and plans to start accepting bids on a third region this summer, a move many stakeholders are asking to delay until more data is available on how redesign affects foster kids’ lives.
For a company to take over a region, it must be a licensed child-placing agency. That means if Providence Kids lost its license because of the two child deaths, Providence Service Corporation would be in violation of its contract with the state.
But while this is possible, it’s not likely. Patrick Crimmins, a spokesperson for DFPS, says it typically would take more than deaths in one family to threaten the license of a child-placing agency. “If this investigation [of Providence Kids] turns up problems in other homes,” Crimmins says, “and persists and persists and persists, you put them on evaluation. If that doesn’t work, you kick it up to probation. At some point down the line, yes, a license could get revoked.”