Georgia has seen its share of struggles and successes in its foster care system. Citizens may find it difficult to discern what is real and how prevalent are the issues. The complexities and varying geographies complicate a process of quick-and-easy solutions.
Expectations of citizens and stakeholders are not the problem. Everyone desires a state where children are safe, where families provide the love and support they need to be successful, and where every child has lifelong connections to other adults. The pathway to finding better results seems elusive from the outside looking in.
These widely held expectations drive the few involved — paid and pro bono — to improve the system one family at a time. While some are led to volunteer, foster or adopt, many more are needed to meet expectations. Many individuals are disconnected and distant from a system that has moving parts, players and intersections. More than ever, people in every community are needed to lend time and talent into a stretched, under-resourced system.
The concerns of the past year involving DFCS have led our elected officials to take notice. Gov. Nathan Deal and a group of legislators have initiated a two-pronged response. Deal has reversed the draconian budget cuts of the last six years by replacing 10 percent of the $74 million lost from DFCS and adding staff. While new money is laudable, this step alone will not be enough.
Last week, the Georgia Senate introduced legislation that would privatize the foster care system, effectively placing all services sans investigations with private nonprofits. The bill provides for more localized involvement in buying the services families need, and proposes an atmosphere where communities have a greater voice in the care of children.
Stakeholders, providers and adults who work to support the system are asking questions. They’re curious about how these changes will affect them and the services they provide. They wonder if new service opportunities will be created. They’re frustrated that the accelerated pace of legislation has left them without a voice.
It’s notable that young people who have experienced the foster care system have slightly different concerns. They want to know if this change will help them, their families and their futures. They want to find permanent, loving homes quickly. They’re desperate to stay connected to their families and communities.
These latter questions are the ones that truly matter. We must answer these questions well and with integrity, accepting the system’s complexity and clarifying our collective expectations by investing the energy and money necessary to meet these expectations.
While this legislation is not a panacea to cure all that ails, if a pay-for-performance approach brings about more local involvement and increased funding for protective services and foster care — and if it is put into operation with planning — it may be the start of a better tomorrow.
Mark A. Washington is managing partner of The Washington Group, an Atlanta-based child welfare and behavioral health consulting group.