Image courtesy of Susanne Jutzeler via Pexabay

October 31, 2019; The Chronicle of Social Change

There are many ways to fix a broken system. But when that system involves the lives and futures of children and youth in foster care, the fix needs to be carefully done with the best interests of the children and their families in mind. In Texas (as elsewhere), when court mandates require changes, the legislature does not always move with great caution.

In 2015, it was clear to a federal judge that the Texas child welfare system was in dire need of an overhaul. And that is what he ordered. In 2016, the state legislature put $140 million in emergency funding into its system to increase the number of caseworkers and up their salaries. But in 2017, it was clear to the legislature that this was not sufficient, and they were going to have to do something else or confront the court for failure to comply. They chose to privatize the system.

The bill they passed was called “community-based care,” and it focused on two phases. In Phase I, the state was divided into 11 foster care regions and a single nonprofit contractor was put in charge of each one. The nonprofit is responsible for placements, growing foster care capacity, and coordinating and delivering services to foster children and their families in their region. Phase II has yet to be implemented. When it is, the case management function will shift from the state to these nonprofit contractors.

While this all sounds good on paper, the reality may not hold up. And as with most of these contractual ventures, it may depend on who the nonprofit contractor is, their support systems, and their capacity to manage this work. It may also depend on just how much the state of Texas is willing to invest in this privatization effort. Skeptics were there from the beginning: F. Scott McCown, a former district judge and former head of the Center for Public Policy Priorities, a nonprofit policy institute, testified against the bill and remains concerned. “Almost anything in the human service area that’s been privatized has ultimately given you a worse system than you already had—private prisons, private mental health hospitals instead of public systems. You don’t have the accountability, you don’t have the transparency, and you don’t get the results,” McCown said, in an interview with The Chronicle of Social Change.

Other states have fallen on their faces in their efforts to privatize child welfare services. Kansas was sued for the huge numbers of placements that children undergo. And in Florida, a federal review showed that the state was underperforming in 11 of 14 categories. To succeed in Texas will take some doing.

There is one early success story that points to some key things that a nonprofit venturing into this space should consider. A nonprofit called ACH Child and Family Services was awarded a contract for placement services in the seven-county region surrounding Fort Worth. So far, they have been successful in placing more children in foster homes, keeping siblings together, and increasing the number of 18-year-olds preparing to exit foster care. There are two main reasons for ACH’s success. The first is technology: they came to the table with updated technology that allowed them to make better placement decisions for kids and to make those decisions quickly. But the second reason was funding. ACH brought $6 million of its own money to make this contract work. When it saw this success, the legislature increased its funding for Phase I.

But there are problems ahead, especially for parts of Texas that do not have an ACH with its own deep pockets or an agency like the one in Bexar County, which includes San Antonio, where the philanthropic community came up with over $7 million to help the children’s shelter that won the contract from the state. Other parts of Texas, particularly rural areas, do not have agencies with these kinds of reserves or communities with the kinds of means to help underwrite the costs not covered by the state.

And there are problems ahead with Phase II. The move to privatize case workers is not being met with open arms. Issues like the size of caseloads, per diem costs per child, and for current state caseworkers, the transferability or loss of their pensions, loom large. Negotiations are underway between the state and nonprofit contractors, but this is a long-term process.

And it should be noted that not every contractor is in Texas. The contract for the Panhandle area of the state was won by an agency that is in Topeka, Kansas. That does somewhat fly in the face of the concept of “community-based-care.”—Carole Levine