Politics & Government

Privatization would only worsen Kentucky’s ailing foster care system, report finds

Glenna Bevin: ‘This is the most beautiful thing I’ve seen in a very, very long time’

Kentucky first lady Glenna Bevin expresses her delight Thursday, Feb. 22, 2018, with a House committee’s unanimous approval of House Bill 1 to streamline the state’s adoption and foster care system.
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Kentucky first lady Glenna Bevin expresses her delight Thursday, Feb. 22, 2018, with a House committee’s unanimous approval of House Bill 1 to streamline the state’s adoption and foster care system.

Kentucky should focus on strengthening its foster care system, which was brimming last year with a record number of children and teens, instead of seeking to outsource the job to private companies, according to a study commissioned under a 2018 law aimed at overhauling child welfare services.

The “more urgent priority” should be ironing out the system’s current kinks, namely leveling the dramatic discrepancy between services available and the number of children in need of those resources.

In a 26-page report published Friday, a group formed as part of House Bill 1 in 2018 to study the feasibility of privatizing the state’s vast foster care network said such a transition would be more expensive and isn’t currently feasible. This is partly due to needed investments in infrastructure that don’t currently exist, such as a data monitoring system compatible across public and private agencies, and a legal services department devoted to child welfare.

The study group members — a mix of state officials, child welfare workers and private providers — concluded that Kentucky lacks the necessary money and coordination among public and private agencies to fully privatize. Expanding privatization piecemeal in areas of abuse prevention and foster family recruitment and training, however, “might make sense,” according to the study.

Stakeholders who took part in the study urged state officials to remember that privatization “is not a ‘silver-bullet’ for addressing areas of poor child welfare system functioning.” The private sector, too, is “limited by the same type of challenges, barriers and capacity issues the public child welfare agency faces.”

Though the Cabinet for Health and Family Services oversees the state’s child welfare agencies, roughly half of the foster care system is already operated through private sector organizations such as The Adanta Group, Sunrise Children’s Services, Omni Visions and NECCO. Cumulatively, these private providers lack the ability to “assume case management responsibility for the day-to-day operations” of the system, the study found.

Jennifer Hall, a study group member and executive director of Key Assets Kentucky, a private agency that contracts with the state to serve children with developmental disabilities, said she doesn’t think Kentucky’s system should ever be fully privatized.

“There’s a reason why there are mandated public services and there’s a reason why there are private providers who have a little bit more flexibility,” Hall said. “To me, that marriage of how a private agency is used to fill in those gaps is what’s needed.”

Hall reiterated the study’s suggestion that the state focus on strengthening the system it already has, including taking steps to lessen the workloads of caseworkers — in 2017, the Department of Community Based Services reported an average employee caseload of 32 families, more than double the recommended standard — and broaden the availability of front-end intervention services to help families avoid the removal of their children. Between 2018 and 2019, the Department of Community Based Services spent nearly $410 million on out-of-home care costs, compared to nearly $15 million in preventative services, the Friday report found.

“We’re asking a public agency to shine like a pretty apple, when they don’t even have the resources to [access] services needed for those families,” she said.

Exploring the feasibility of privatizing such a consequential network overseen by the state’s largest department is part of a broader, years-long push toward reform of Kentucky’s child welfare system, which still sags under the weight of record numbers of minors in out-of-home care, high caseworker turnover and low retention rates, and insufficient funding.

Children are entering the foster system at younger ages, and chronic disparities between the number of fostering families and kids in out-of-home care means minors are more likely than not to be regularly re-placed, especially as they remain in the system for extended periods of time. Children and teens, for example, who’ve been in out-of-home care for at least two years experience an average of 10 different placements, according to state data.

Between late 2014 and late last year, the number of kids in out-of-home care jumped from 7,684 to a record 9,916, according to state data. As of June 1, there were 9,875 minors in the system.

In search of relief, Gov. Matt Bevin and other child welfare reform proponents have weighed whether outsourcing all foster care services to the private sector would help increase accountability, decrease bureaucratic delays and cut costs. Florida and Kansas are the only states with fully privatized systems, and both were triggered by deep levels of dysfunction under state control.

Privatization, though, comes with its own set of potential burdens, including lack of oversight and uncontrolled expenses, which have, in the cases of Florida and Kansas, caused state leaders to question the model.

While the governor didn’t respond directly to Friday’s report, his spokeswoman, Elizabeth Kuhn, said Tuesday that the governor is “committed to making Kentucky the best state in the country for children in foster care, and he has said many times that he will consider any option that will improve the system for Kentucky children.”

Gov. Matt Bevin encourages people at the Summit to Save our Children to work to address the issues in the adoption and foster care system in Kentucky.

Of the report, Department of Community Based Services Commissioner Eric Clark said continual development of public-private partnerships is “critical” in order to “monitor performance measures so that we are ultimately optimizing our outcomes for our families.”

Other study recommendations include forming a permanent steering and advisory committee dedicated to child welfare, and adopting the collective view that foster care should be an “intervention of last resort.”

It’s unclear how Bevin or the Republican-led General Assembly will proceed with the group’s findings, which are being presented to the legislature’s Child Welfare Advisory and Oversight Committee on Monday.

Even though the report makes a point many already knew to be true, group member Grace Akers, executive director of St. Joseph’s Children’s Home, said she felt the exercise was valuable. No matter who is responsible for helping Kentucky’s abused and neglected children, she said, it ultimately comes down to “what resources are we willing to put into Kentucky kids and families?”

Alex Acquisto is a corps member with Report for America, a national service program made possible in Kentucky with support from the Blue Grass Community Foundation. Reach her at 859-231-1427, @AcquistoA
Alex Acquisto covers health and social services for the Lexington Herald-Leader and Kentucky.com. She joined the newspaper in June 2019 as a corps member with Report for America, a national service program made possible in Kentucky with support from the Blue Grass Community Foundation. She’s from Owensboro, Ky., and previously worked at the Bangor Daily News and other newspapers in Maine.