Company quits Texas Foster Care Redesign project

Another Texas privatization project has failed to produce the results touted by free market boosters and private contractors.

Providence Service Corporation, a self-described “national leader in the management and provision of the highest-quality human social service,” announced on August 1 that it was quitting its job as manager of the Foster Care Redesign project in West Texas.

Providence CEO Mike Fidgen said that the company was quitting because the redesign program needed to be “more adequately funded.”

To put it less delicately, Providence quit because it couldn’t make enough money.

Texas lawmakers in 2011 authorized Foster Care Redesign under the assumption that private companies like Providence could improve the state’s troubled foster care program and lower costs.

Providence was the West Texas Single Source Continuum Contractor that was to oversee and coordinate services among private foster care placement agencies in West Texas, an expansive region that covers 60 counties. The region is mostly rural but includes some mid-sized cities such as Abilene, Midland, Odessa, San Angelo, and Wichita Falls.

Providence in 2013 signed a five-year, $30 million contract to manage the region’s Foster Care Redesign. Fifteen months into the project, DFPS has already paid Providence $8.3 million. According to Myko Gedutis, assistant organizing coordinator for the Texas State Employees Union CWA Local 6186 (TSEU), Providence is already $2 million over budget.

“The news (that Providence is quitting because of the lack of funding) confirms it’s time to stop expanding privatization and start adequately funding child protection,” said Ashley Harris a policy expert for Texans Care for Children, a child welfare advocacy group. “(The state needs to begin) reducing caseloads for overwhelmed (Child Protective Services) staff and establishing basic safety and training standards for foster parents.”

Prior to Province’s withdrawal, the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services (DFPS), which oversees state child protective services, notified Providence that its shortcomings that needed to be corrected.

According to a media statement issued by DFPS, the company

  • Missed performance goals such as keeping siblings together and placing children close to home,
  • Failed to develop staff and an adequate network of foster care providers, and
  • Was unable “to develop a full array of service to better serve children.”

“Providence walking away from the contract after one year clearly answers the question about whether a for-profit agency can provide quality services with the same inadequate funding provided by the Legislature,” said Gedutis. “Providence’s attempt at placing children closer to their own communities, and improving outcomes and services, all with the same inadequate budget, didn’t work.”

Members of TSEU who work for DFPS have for some time tried to convince lawmakers that there are no shortcuts to providing quality care for abused children.

And in Texas, the problem of child abuse is critical. Between 2008 and 2012, 237 children a year died from abuse or neglect, nearly 100 more than in California (148) and nearly 140 more than in New York (99).

During state fiscal year 2013, eight children died in foster care.

But state leaders have chosen to address this crisis on the cheap.

For example, lawmakers have failed to provide funding to keep child protective caseloads manageable. The national standard for child protective caseloads is 17 cases per worker. The average Texas caseload is 28.

State caseworker pay is also low. According to the State Auditor’s Office, the average base pay for a state child protective caseworker, a job that requires a four-year bachelors degree, ranges  from $34,656 a year to $40,560 a year.

Low pay and high caseloads have led to a high turnover rate. The State Auditor reports that the DFPS caseworker turnover rate for 2012 was 26.1 percent. The high turnover rate affects the quality of work.

Instead of addressing these funding problems, the state has turned to private agencies to deal with the child abuse crisis.

In the last decade, the number of private agencies providing foster care services has increased to 350. Some of these agencies are run by for-profit companies and some by non-profit companies.

Whatever their status, generating revenue remains their main focus, said TSEU member Erica Harris to special legislative committee hearing in April. The focus on revenue causes many private agencies to cut corners.

Harris, a caseworker who worked for a private agency and now works for DFPS, told lawmakers that she was troubled and eventually quit after she learned that her private agency allowed unqualified people to serve as foster parents, doctored paperwork to make it look as if they were meeting goals, inadequately trained foster parents, and did not properly supervise foster parents.

“The root of many of these problems with the private agency stemmed from the agency being responsible for maintaining a foster care system while having to watch their own bottom line,” said Harris in her testimony.

While Providence’s failure to remain on the job is a setback for the privatization of foster care, it also is another in a growing list of Texas privatization initiatives that failed to meet expectations, including:

  • An $899 million contract with Accenture to privatize state health and human services, which was canceled in 2007,
  • An $863 million contract with IBM to consolidate state agency data centers, which was canceled in 2010,
  • A $210 contract with Accenture to update the state’s child support computer system, whose cost increased by $64 million after the company failed to meet the original deadline for implementation, and
  • A multi-million Medicaid claims contract with Xerox, which was canceled in May after Xerox, “allegedly erroneously doled out for medically unnecessary Medicaid claims,” reports the Texas Tribune. Xerox’s error cost the state hundreds of millions of dollars.

Gedutis said that foster care in Texas needs to be redesigned, but, like the other failed privatization efforts, the failure of Providence to complete its job shows that privatization is not the way to improve state services.

“Instead of contracting with more private agencies and getting the same results, efforts to improve the foster care system need to address inadequate funding, accountability, oversight of private agencies, and dangerously high caseloads,” said Gedutis. “TSEU members will continue to fight to improve our agency and the services we provide to vulnerable Texans, and to oppose privatization experiments that continue to fail.”

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