Feb. 20, 2017; Austin American-Statesman

The nonprofit sector is often celebrated for its frugality and its knack for innovation. But, is it any match for a broken child welfare system? Some Texas legislators think the sector could be the fix for what ails the foster care system, as legislation was debated this week in committee to begin a multi-year process to privatize foster care and turn it over to community-based nonprofits.

The Austin American-Statesman reported that some child welfare advocates applauded the legislation, House Bill 6, filed by state Rep. James Frank (R-Wichita Falls), which would restructure the state’s troubled foster care system so that nonprofits—and not the state—would provide case management. Organizations would then be in the driver’s seat, making key decisions about the kinds of help children receive without needing permission from the state. Currently, state case managers handle those decisions. Community-based foster care systems have been tested in the Fort Worth area and, more recently, in the area around Abilene.

Since 2014, the Fort Worth pilot program, run through the nonprofit ACH Child and Family Services of Fort Worth, has kept a high number of children in their communities, decreased the number of times children moved from home to home, and increased the number of foster homes, particularly in rural areas, according to the Department of Family and Protective Services.

However, not everyone in the room was impressed with the move. Johana Scot, executive director of the Parent Guidance Center, which advocates for parental rights in child welfare cases, told the Statesman that contractors are going to be faced with serving two bosses when it is time to go to court. “They can’t serve the best interest of the child while they’re simultaneously trying to fix the family,” Scot said.

If Texas lawmakers are looking for a roadmap of what not to do with House Bill 6, they need not look too far. California’s nearly three-decade experiment with privatizing a portion of the state’s foster care system has been criticized as an abhorrent threat to child safety and a financial failure. In the California case, there was a not-so-surprising absence of local mom-and-pop-shop-type nonprofits with skilled and experienced case managers ready to assist—the kind of talent waiting in the wings that the Texas plan hinges on. In the vacuum, unsavory actors set up shop to maximize profits by identifying willing (and sometimes dangerous and unqualified) foster homes and then packing them with as many kids as possible. Complaints and documentation of sexual and physical abuse piled up for years, logged into a multibillion-dollar data collection system but acted on by no one. Waivers were repeatedly sought and granted from the state to allow adults with lengthy legal records to become foster parents. In 2013, the Los Angeles Times found through an analysis of more than 1 million hotline investigations over a recent three-year period that children living in homes run by private agencies were about a third more likely to be the victims of serious physical, emotional, or sexual abuse than children in state-supervised foster family homes. It also found the state was not meeting national benchmarks in the percentage of homes that were abuse-free.

Those still questioning whether the profit motive would tempt some unsavory actors into the mix where the welfare of children is concerned in Texas need only recall the fresh jail sentences in Pennsylvania’s failed attempt to privatize parts of the juvenile justice system, which ended in a “Kids for Cash” scandal.

Whatever your opinion on privatization of state services, it’s clear that across the country, from unsafe drinking water to failing schools, states are struggling to meet the needs of their youngest and most vulnerable constituents. In Mississippi, despite receiving a failing grade by Child Care Aware, a nonprofit that tracks state childcare policies, the state recently voted to end a pilot program that would have increased the number of inspections of childcare centers in nine Mississippi counties that make up one health district. According to Jackson, Mississippi’s Clarion-Ledger, the visits were meant to “ensure licensing rules and regulations were being met and that our children were safe in their childcare environments.” The Department of Health is reviewing alternate options.

Given the shaky track record of privatization of social welfare, even though the experiment has worked in Fort Worth, the state legislature should proceed cautiously when looking to unleash privatization on the state system. It’s wishful thinking to believe the nonprofit sector can do it all.—Carrie Collins-Fadell