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.”

Better caseload standards, more workers needed to protect Texas’ children

Everyone agrees that protecting children from abuse is important work, but few appreciate how much work goes into doing the job right. Members of the Texas State Employees Union CWA Local 6186 on February 19 testified before a state House committee to explain all the work that must be done to keep children safe.

The TSEU members were supporting HB 304, a bill authored by Armando Walle of Houston that would establish reasonable caseloads standards for the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services, the agency that oversees Child Protective Services (CPS).

“It is my job to work with (children who have been removed from their home), their families and relatives, their attorney’s, the court, court appointed volunteers, the caregivers, and all medical experts who make recommendations (for the children),” said Michelle Copeland, a caseworker in a Houston CPS conservatorship unit to the lawmakers. “And let’s not forget, in-house programs and service providers. As the child’s conservatorship worker, it is my duty to see the child in the home monthly, confirm that the child’s needs are being met medically, academically, emotionally, physically, and culturally, address concerns as they arise, meet documentation deadlines, monitor the progress based on the child’s plan and the family plan of service, transport to family visits, medical visits, sibling visits, or rapport-building visits. I must also visit the parent’s home, or attend service provider facilities to participate in therapeutic recommendation suggestions.”

In addition CPS workers work under strict deadlines set by the Legislature.

“The amount of time it takes to do a good investigation varies case by case, but with every case that we are assigned, we have to do what is legislatively mandated,” said John Paul Scott, a CPS investigator and Army veteran. “That means contact within 24 hours for Priority 1 cases and 72 hours for Priority 2 cases. In addition, the agency requires documentation of all work and interviews within 24 hours. If you go out on a case that involves seven children, that means seven separate interviews with the children, interviews with the parents, and contacts with collaterals.”

TSEU members told lawmakers that caseloads are too high, which means that a caseworkers and investigators can’t give their full attention to each cases. The Caseload Standard Advisory Committee recommends that the average CPS conservatorship caseworker caseload should be 20, but the current average caseload is 32.

The same holds true for other positions. The recommended caseload for investigators is 15, but the current average is 21.9; for family based safety service caseworkers, it’s 10, but the current average is 14; and for adult protective services caseworkers, it’s 22, but the current average is 30.

“The quality of our casework goes down when caseloads go up,” said Susan Rial, an investigations supervisor in Arlington. “If given an appropriate amount of time to complete an investigation, workers should be able to make good, sound observations regarding the families on their caseload. This is not possible when you have 30 or 50 or more cases. No amount of technology or better time management can make it possible for a worker to gather and process all the relevant case information for so many cases.”

Rial said that the high caseload creates a vicious cycle. It causes a high rate of burn out, which in turn creates a high level of turnover. High turnover increase the caseload for those who stay.

CPS’s turnover rate for 2012 was 24 percent; the state average was 17.3 percent. The overall turnover rate for the Department of Family Protective Services was 19.4 percent.

HB 304 aims to make caseloads more manageable, and by doing so relieve much of the stress that leads to turnover. It sets average caseload standards for investigative caseworkers, CPS case workers, CPS conservatorship caseworkers, child-care licensing caseworkers, and adult protective services in-house caseworkers.

The Legislative Budget Board estimates that setting the new caseload standards would create more than 2,500 new jobs within the Department of Family and Protective Services.

“The only way that the risk to vulnerable children, elderly and disabled Texans will be reduced is for this Legislature to approve House Bill 304,” said Scott to the lawmakers. “I ask for you to support this bill so we can make some real progress improving the work our agency does.”