State Stumbles Forward with Foster Care Privatization

Vivian Farinazzo

Is the state agency charged with guarding Texas’ abused kids trying to privatize services needlessly?

The Department of Family and Protective Services continues to push forward on a plan to bring on more private companies—despite evidence that its effort to overhaul the state’s foster care system is faltering. Many advocates think recent turmoil with Providence Services Corporation, the first contractor tapped by the state to oversee a portion of the foster care system, suggests the experiment is already a failure. The next stage in “foster care redesign,” as the state calls it, is set to take effect this month when another private company takes over a seven-county North Texas region including Fort Worth. Instead, critics argue the Legislature should invest more money in a state-run system and work out the issues without the involvement of private companies.

The need for reform in foster care is not in question. In the fiscal year spanning September 2012 to September 2013, 10 children died from abuse or neglect while under state care. In fiscal year 2014, three children died, including 6-year-old Jenetta Smith and her brother, 4-year-old Riley. Both children drowned in Lake Georgetown in July, under the care of a foster family monitored by Providence. Until August, when Providence abruptly pulled out of its five-year contract, the company was in charge of a rural 60-county region in West Texas that the state now must again oversee.

Foster care redesign was meant to eliminate the rise in child deaths and streamline foster care services provided by a multitude of sub-contractors. In 2011, the Texas Legislature passed a bill allowing DFPS to shift the administration of its more than 300 privately owned child placement agencies—responsible for recruiting and monitoring foster placements—to lead companies, like Providence. Each “lead” company manages a certain region of the state. The goal is to keep children closer to their siblings and home communities, and avoid bouncing them from one home to the next.

In June, the Texas Sunset Commission, which looks into the efficacy of state agencies, released an excoriating report on DFPS. The report noted that foster care redesign is a “risky endeavor” that has no long-term comprehensive plan. Redesign “presents inherent challenges and risks to DFPS and to the state,” the report warned. “If a contractor fails or pulls out of the contract, DFPS is then faced with the difficult task of assuming the contractor’s responsibilities temporarily while the agency procures a new contract.”

That’s exactly what happened with Providence. In August, the company ended its contract with the state, citing a lack of services in its assigned region, such as residential treatment centers and adequate transportation for children. Providence also had IT system issues and was $2 million over budget.

The state has reclaimed responsibility for keeping track of the 1,100 foster children already in the system as well as any incoming children removed from homes due to abuse and neglect. The department intends to continue providing some of the services Providence was implementing in its redesign effort, but has no plans yet to tap another contractor to take over the region. But if the state can handle what it hired a private agency to do in the first place, what’s the point of moving forward with privatization?

Ashley Harris from child welfare non-profit Texans Care for Children says the state may be able to continue running Providence’s programs effectively.

“If the Legislature gives DFPS the funding it needs, I think the agency can meet those goals without spending extra money to go through the middleman contractor,” Harris said. “Certainly it would have been easier if they had done it in the first place rather than coming in to pick up the pieces after Providence pulled out. If they are successful, it would be another reason not to go back to the redesign approach.”

But Family and Protective Services Commissioner John Specia continues to push privatization as the only solution to fixing the system.

In a recent video to DFPS employees following Providence’s contract termination, Specia struck a reassuring tone:

“We’re going to continue because foster care redesign is an essential process for this department. We must improve the way we deliver foster care services and we’re doing that through rolling out foster care redesign,” he said. “We’re going to have steps and missteps but we’re going to keep going forward to improve the system for our children and families.”

The second company to take up foster care reform, the non-profit Our Community Our Kids, began accepting new children who need placement into homes on Sept. 1.

Wayne Carson, CEO of the Our Community Our Kids parent organization ACH Child and Family Services, said his team has learned from Providence’s mistakes. One of the most important lessons, Carson said, was the power of a good IT infrastructure, which helps keep track of key information on foster children in the region. Providence had issues with IT system accessibility early on and had to manually enter each child’s information as it obtained it from each child-placing agency.

“You need good information to make good decisions about children, to be able to follow children to make sure they’re getting the kind of care they deserve and to know where your foster homes are so you can place children in their neighborhoods,” Carson said.

One issue, which Providence also faced, continues: the state’s refusal to spend more money for more services. Carson said Our Community Our Kids knew it would have to invest extra money from the beginning. The 2011 legislation mandated that lead agencies work with the same level of funding that the state had used to run the old system in each region, despite the mandate for more services. The state budgeted a one-time amount of $208,000 for startup costs, but Our community Our Kids had to front between $800,000 and $1 million more.

But Carson is confident Our Community Our Kids has enough experience and rapport with the community to make privatization work.

“Foster care redesign is a way to help coordinate the system of care,” Carson said. “We’ve been able to create better access to services that already existed for children that, because the system was so fragmented and there was no cohesion among providers, it was difficult to make that happen.”

Diana Martinez with TexProtects, another non-profit geared toward helping Texas children, said meeting the goals set forward by redesign is a necessary part to keeping children safe, no matter who’s in charge of it.

“Something definitely needs to change,” Martinez said. “If it’s through private providers that’s great, if it’s the state being able to put more money into foster care so that we can build up those types of resources that we need, that’s great too.”

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Published at 3:28 pm CST
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