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Archive for Thursday, September 24, 1998

FOSTER CARE CHANGES FLAWED FROM START, GROUP CONTENDS

September 24, 1998

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A children's advocacy group releases a study on privatization and recommends steps for improving the state's troubled child welfare system.

State officials relied on nine mistaken assumptions when they launched a now controversial 1996 initiative to privatize child welfare services, according to a report by Kansas Action for Children.

But welfare officials now are more openly discussing previously unacknowledged system woes, which bodes well for fixing the problems, if critics and officials work together to make ``inevitable mid-course changes,'' said Gary Brunk of Lawrence, KAC executive director.

``I have a feeling now that there's a real willingness to have real discussion about where to go from here,'' Brunk said. ``I'm more optimistic than I've been in the last year.''

KAC's 39-page report began circulating among child welfare policymakers and advocates last week and is now being distributed to a broader public. Brunk said the group plans to mail a copy to each state legislator within the next few weeks and has received requests for copies statewide.

Research for the report began in June, Brunk said, and included interviews with people both within the system and outsiders affected by it. Researchers also reviewed Social and Rehabilitation Services documents and news reports.

The report describes how privatization of child welfare services -- ``the most dramatic public policy change affecting Kansas children and families in decades'' -- came to pass and the political environment that prompted a speedy turnover of former state responsibilities to private contractors.

``No evidence exists that Kansas considered other options for system reform,'' the report states. ``What is evident is that Kansas pursued privatization of child welfare services with a vigor rarely seen in state government. Certainly national child welfare authorities, even at the time of the Kansas decision, cautioned about the importance of planning and preparation to ensure the success of privatization initiatives. However, the politics of the Kansas child welfare situation did not afford a long planning and preparation period. The Kansas attitude seemed to be transition now and work out the details later.''

The report cites several flawed assumptions by SRS in beginning the new system. Among them:

  • SRS could make the privatization decision ``in a vacuum'' relying on input only from the private contractors. Judges and foster families weren't adequately consulted.
  • No planning process or pilot programs were necessary.
  • An experienced pool of state workers would transfer to the private contractors. That didn't happen. Contractors ``were forced to hire unprepared workers, many without social work training or licenses.''
  • That the rates paid by SRS to the contractors would adequately cover needed services for children.
  • That the contractors would continue to receive the same level of community support and private funding as they did before garnering the state contracts.
  • And that privatization would decrease the number of children in the system because they would move through it faster.

The report also offered seven recommendations for improving the system. Among them:

  • SRS should involve juvenile court judges more in shaping policies and strategies for addressing system problems.
  • Increased legislative oversight.
  • Stepped up efforts at preventing child abuse, neglect, and family dissolution.

SRS spokesman John Garlinger called the KAC report, ``an excellent effort. Obviously, they put a lot of work into it.''

He said the agency and others already are instituting most of the report's recommendations.

Garlinger disagreed with these predictions put forth in the KAC reports closing paragraphs:

``The full impact of the swift implementation of managed care principles in the Kansas child welfare system has not yet been felt,'' the report stated. ``Experienced observers predict that in two years either there will be a massive infusion of additional money into the child welfare system, thereby providing for increased case rates, or SRS will take back at least the foster care function.''

Garlinger said neither is likely to happen.

-- Mike Shields' phone message number is 832-7144. His e-mail address is mshields@ljworld.com.

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