Georgia Considers Privatization of Child Welfare System

A bill to privatize most of the state’s child welfare services was introduced this week by Senator Unterman (R-Buford). The legislation, Senate Bill 350, would require the Department of Family and Children Services (DFCS) to develop a plan by January of 2015 by which is would contract with a limited number of regional lead agencies to provide the vast majority of child welfare services that are now, at least in part, offered by the state. The program would be phased in over the course of two years.

While lead agencies would be allowed to provide up to 35 percent of the services needed within a region, the law would require that they contract with other local agencies to provide the majority of services.

Contracts between the state and lead agencies would be for five years with DFCS having the ability to extend the contract for an additional three years. While DFCS would no longer be a direct service provider, it would remain responsibility for providing oversight of the contracted agencies.

As an incentive to agencies to find suitable permanent placements for children in their care, the law would fund agencies with per-child payments for a maximum of six months. After six months agencies would be required to pick up the tab for children that remain in their care. Likewise, agencies would not be eligible for per child payments for any child returning to the agency within 12 months of a permanent placement.

The reform is modeled after similar efforts in Florida and more than a dozen other states over the last couple of decades and has been driven by Georgia’s continued failures to adequately serve the children in its care.

While privatization is supported by many state leaders, including the Governor and Lt. Governor, opponents to the change say that it is being done too quickly and without considering ways to reform the system without privatization.

Evidence from Florida and other states shows that privatization can have beneficial effects, including improved safety for the children in care and a reduction in the number of children in state custody.

Yesterday, the legislation was favorably voted out of the Healthcare Delivery Subcommittee of the Senate Health and Human Services Committee. A stakeholder meeting was expected to be held today.

Capitol Update – February 7th, 2014

gco-capitol-update-header green box

Roads Cleared, News Coverage Still Encountering Snow Related Congestion

While last week’s winter weather is in the rear view mirror, the postmortem evaluation of the government’s response continues to receive considerable coverage.   The General Assembly, however, has moved right back into business as usual.

 

Legislation, Study Committees, and Rumors to Watch

– Education –

Senate Bill 288 moved through senate without opposition. The bill from Sen. Charlie Bethel (R-Dalton) would prohibit public schools from participating in interscholastic athletic events officiated by outside organizations, such as The Georgia High School Association, unless those third party groups release annual financial reports.

 

In December we learned that the GA Dept. of Education will be launching a College and Career Pathways initiative, which will require students to select a career path that will shape their high school course work.  Rep. Eddie Lumsden (R-Armuchee) introduced House Bill 766, the “Work Based Learning Act”, which would permit schools – in collaboration with the Department of Labor and the Technical College System of Georgia – to award secondary credit for approved off campus work to students 16 and over.

 

Sen. Mike Dugan’s (R-Carrollton) Senate Bill 283 passed the Senate and moved to the House this week.  The bill would authorize schools to educate students regarding “traditional winter celebrations,” and officially permit the use of “traditional greetings” like “Merry Christmas” and “Happy Hanukkah.” It’s a distressing sign of the times that a bill like this is considered necessary.

 

– Child Welfare –

Sen. Tommie Williams (R- Lyons) is encouraging support of  “Ava’s Law” (House Bill 309 & Senate Bill 191), which would require Georgia private insurance companies to cover treatment for autism.  According to the CDC, autism spectrum disorders affect 1 in 88 children.  Gov. Deal’s 2015 budget included proposed funding for such coverage in the State Employee Health Plan, though neither the Governor’s proposal nor this legislation would result in coverage under Medicaid or PeachCare.

 

A bill to privatize most of the state’s child welfare services was introduced this week by Senator Unterman (R-Buford). The legislation, Senate Bill 350, would require the Department of Family and Children Services (DFCS) to develop a plan by January of 2015 by which it would contract with a limited number of regional lead agencies to provide the vast majority of child welfare services that are now, at least in part, offered by the state. The program would be phased in over the course of two years.

While lead agencies would be allowed to provide up to 35 percent of the services needed within a region, the law would require that they contract with other local agencies to provide the majority of services.

Contracts between the state and lead agencies would be for five years with DFCS having the ability to extend the contract for an additional three years. While DFCS would no longer be a direct service provider, it would retain responsibility for providing oversight of the contracted agencies.

As an incentive to agencies to find suitable permanent placements for children in their care, the law would fund agencies with per-child payments for a maximum of six months. After six months agencies would be required to pick up the tab for children that remain in their care. Likewise, agencies would not be eligible for per child payments for any child returning to the agency within 12 months of a permanent placement.

The reform is modeled after similar efforts in Florida and more than a dozen other states over the last couple of decades and has been driven by Georgia’s continued failures to adequately serve the children in its care.

While privatization is supported by many state leaders, including the Governor and Lt. Governor, opponents to the change say that it is being done too quickly and without considering ways to reform the system without privatization.

Evidence from Florida and other states shows that privatization can have beneficial effects, including improved safety for the children in care and a reduction in the number of children in state custody.

Yesterday, the legislation was favorably voted out of the Healthcare Delivery Subcommittee of the Senate Health and Human Services Committee. A stakeholder meeting was expected to be held today.

 

– Welfare Reform –

 Representing an extension of a 2012 law requiring mandatory drug testing for Georgia welfare recipients, Rep. Greg Morris (R-Vidalia) has introduced House Bill 772 which would impose the same standard for receipt of Food Stamps. This will be an interesting piece of legislation to watch, as a Federal Court overturned  similar legislation in Florida.

 

– Ethics and Government Reform –

 Sen. Josh McKoon (R-Columbus), Chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, is part of a coalition proposing some interesting changes. Two have received attention in the past week: First is a request to require conference committee reports be filed by day’s end of the 39th day of legislative session. This seems a wise and rational move, as it would protect Georgians from having to pass a bill in order to find out what is in it.  In addition, Senate Resolution 7 would allocate permanent funding that would provide for the separation of the Georgia ethics commission from the office of the Governor.

 

Upcoming Events

Our friends at the American Federation for Children are hosting a nonpartisan candidate training school in Atlanta on February 22nd. The training is free but requires registration to attend. For more information, please see this flyer for the event or email Brian Pleva to register.

 

Ironic

Despite last week’s encounter with snow, Georgia is not the state you expect to be producing Winter Olympic medalists.  However, as the Sochi Games kick off today, the Peach State is indeed represented by Douglasville native Elana Meyers, who will be seeking her second Olympic metal in Bobsledding.

After last week many Georgians likely have a new found respect for those able to control a vehicle on ice at high rates of speed.  Check out Meyers’ team’s story of determination and perseverance here, and be sure to tune in to cheer her on as she represents our great State.

_______________________

Thanks to Jamie Lord, our director of government affairs, and Jacob Stubbs, our legislative intern and John Jay Fellowship alumnus for their able contributions to this update.

2014 Session Begins

Below is the first edition of our Capitol Update newsletter for 2014. If you’d like to receive future editions in your inbox, sign up here.

*************************

2014 Session Begins

By: Eric Cochling, VP of Public Policy
Georgia Center for Opportunity

Welcome to the first edition of our Capitol Update for 2014. As we have done for several years, we will be sending out regular updates to let you know what’s happening under the gold dome (good, bad or otherwise) during the 2014 session of the Georgia General Assembly. Should you have any questions or comments about the content of these updates, please email Eric Cochling.

New Year, Election Near

The 152nd session of the Georgia General Assembly started on Monday. Since this is an election year, the session promises to be a short one as members of the Assembly look to campaign and raise money, things they cannot legally do while in session.

If this week has been any indication, activity will be fast and furious until the end of session, which is expected to end in mid-March this year. It doesn’t help the sense of urgency that the state is on the verge of moving our primary election from July to May. Legislation moving the primary election made its way through both houses of the General Assembly this week and is now on the way to the Governor for his signature.

With the elections looming and based on conversations we have had with lawmakers, we also expect the legislature to steer clear of politically divisive legislation. That said, “politically divisive” is in the eye of the beholder and you can never be certain what bills will generate controversy. It is safe to say that all legislators hope to leave this session, in particular, having made as few of their constituents mad as possible.

Legislation, Study Committees, and Rumors to Watch

Education

This week, Governor Deal proposed a $42.3 billion budget – more than half of which is coming from the federal government!! – that includes $547 million in additional funding for Georgia’s public school system to fund teacher pay increases and adding back days to the school calendar.

In other news, House Resolution 486, sponsored by Rep. Tom Taylor (R-Dunwoody) would amend the Georgia Constitution to allow municipalities created in 2005 or later (and contiguous municipalities) to form city school systems.

In the category of  “Finally!,”  Rep. Ed Setzler (R-Acworth) says that he is planning to introduce legislation to address some of the problems created by Georgia’s zero-tolerance law relative to weapons on school property. It would be great if accidentally leaving a pocket knife in your car didn’t result in a criminal record.

Criminal Justice Reform

Georgia’s Criminal Justice Reform Council released its third set of recommendations in three years on January 10th, this time focusing on reforming aspects of prisoner reentry. GCO testified before the council in November and we are happy to see that many of the recommendations from our Prisoner Reentry Working Group were included in the council’s report.

The council’s official recommendations include the following:

  • Each prisoner should have a Transition Accountability Plan initiated at the time they enter prison and consistently used during incarceration that will determine the best path to successful reentry;
  • State corrections agencies should work more closely with private agencies and returning citizens to locate and secure sustainable, safe, and affordable housing;
  • The food stamp ban on offenders convicted of a drug-related felony should be lifted, provided that they maintain a certificate of program completion issued by the Department of Corrections showing that they are in good standing and in compliance;
  • Judges should be allowed to modify driver’s license restrictions for those convicted of minor drug offenses not involving a vehicle so that they are able to operate a vehicle;
  • In hiring for state employment, job candidates should not be asked about criminal history until the interview stage.
  • Negligent hiring liability protection should be provided for companies willing to hire ex-offenders under certain conditions.

It is very likely that we will see these recommendations included in a criminal justice reform bill this session. We will keep you posted.

Marriage and Family

It’s difficult to deny the harm that no-fault divorce causes to children. It’s also difficult to know exactly what needs to be done to help protect kids from unecessary divorce. House Bill 684, sponsored by Rep. Jason Spencer (R-Woodbine), offers at least part of the answer.

This legislation would only affect couples with minor children, where the grounds for divorce are irreconcilable differences (no-fault). In those cases, the legislation would require divorcing parents to take an eight-hour course that explains how divorce will impact everyone involved, especially the children. It would also require a “discernment period” of 320 days before a court could grant the divorce. The waiting period could be waived in cases involving abuse, neglect, or abandonment and, importantly, the existence of abuse, neglect, or abandonment could be proven to a judge outside of the public eye and public record.

The thinking is that during the discernment period, tensions could cool and the couple could experience life apart – before making it permanent – so that they could see how their divorce would impact their children over the course of the year (including birthdays, holidays, etc.). While not a silver bullet to solve the marriage and divorce crisis in the country, this is certainly a good way to encourage couples with children to stay together.

Visit Allies for Family Life and look for “Children’s Hope for Family Act” for more information.

Child Welfare

According to this report, it appears that Georgia is moving quickly to obtain a federal waiver that would allow the state more flexibility in how it spends federal foster care dollars. Governor Deal has indicated that the new flexibility would be used to create new public/private partnerships that would allow private agencies to take a lead role in providing foster care and other child protection services. The Casey Family Foundation has praised the use of waivers and privatization in other states where it has been a success and called for extending the availability of waivers to the states beyond this year.

Our team continues to serve on the Governor’s Office of Children and Families CSEC Task Force, which is making real strides in raising awareness of child sex trafficking in Georgia and finding effective ways to rescue and serve victims, while reducing demand. The subgroup on which we serve recently developed a certification program for businesses that commit to fighting child sex trafficking called Champions for Safe Children. We are now in the process of delivering trainings for interested companies around the metro area. Next up: developing similar certification programs for cities and neighborhoods.

Upcoming Event

Please join us for our 4th annual School Choice Celebration & Rally on Tuesday, January 28th, from noon to 2pm at the Georgia State Capitol. Our special guest will be Keshia Knight Pulliam (Cosby Show and House of Payne). Registration is encouraged.

Funny

The General Assembly has been around a while and like any old institution it has developed its own language. James Salzer at the AJC put this glossary together to help us outsiders keep track of what’s happening.

Thanks to Jamie Lord, our director of government affairs, and Jacob Stubbs, our legislative intern and John Jay Fellowship alumnus for their able contributions to this update.

Prison Implements Faith and Character-Based Initiative

Inmates of any faith are encouraged to apply to the first “Faith and Character-Based” prison in Georgia, at Walker State Prison, located in the northwest corner of the state.  The Georgia Department of Corrections (GDC) is seeking to positively affect inmate behavior and reduce recidivism through this newly established program, which focuses on accountability, responsibility, integrity, and faith.

 

Inmates at Walker State Prison performing

Inmates at Walker State Prison performing

 

An important part of GCO’s research within its Prisoner Reentry Initiative involves visiting correctional facilities throughout the state to view firsthand what programs and services GDC offers to prepare offenders to transition back into society. This varies greatly by the quality of education, training, and treatment they receive during their incarceration. Some facilities are better than others, and this prison impressed us as having great potential for success.

Changed Expectations:  A Prison of Hope

Pulling up to Walker State Prison, it appeared that the prison was just like any other from the outside: razor-wire fence, guard tower, patrol car, lock-down facilities, and an overall feeling of intimidation. However, inside the prison, the atmosphere was quite different from what I expected. We were greeted by respectful inmates with head nods and hand-shakes, who appeared somewhat happy to see visitors. From observing a group of men in a classroom taking guitar lessons to seeing a large mural in the cafeteria depicting a scene from the Garden of Eden, an air of hope seemed to permeate the otherwise grim state facility.

What the GDC started in recent years with a dozen or so faith and character-based dorms throughout the state has evolved into this new two-year initiative being tested in Georgia. The success of these initial dorms paved the way for expanding the program into a prison-wide capacity at Walker in August 2011.  This idea was first tested by Lawtey Correctional Institution in Starke, Florida, whose faith and character-based program has shown to positively affect inmate behavior and reduce recidivism since 2003.

Once inmates complete the two-year program, they will either transition into society (via parole, probation, or maxing-out) or transfer to another prison to finish their sentence. Participation in the faith-based component of the program is optional to inmates, but it can be readily accessed through taking various elective classes that are offered. Further, volunteers from the community come into the prison to mentor and help inmates grow in their respective faiths.

Culture of Reform = Unlocked Lockers

At the core of the program is the idea that inmates should be men of character. This is not a policy that is forced from the top-down; rather, it is a goal that each inmate internalizes personally.The pilot group of men adopted articles that govern the way they interact with each other and painted them on the cafeteria wall to be on display for all to see. They even decided to keep all of the lockers in their living quarters unlocked as a reminder to be men of integrity. This powerful symbol – exemplified in the unlocked locker – shows the extent to which the inmates strive to create a culture of reform that is distinct from other prisons.

The staff and inmates at Walker State Prison are cultivating something that is indeed unique among Georgia prisons, as well as in the country at large.

The chaplain shared with us that sometimes men come into his office crying because they feel a sense of release from the oppression that marks the prisons from where they came.

It often takes time for inmates who recently transfer into Walker to adjust to the new prison culture. However, once this starts to happen, the shell around their heart begins to crack, and for the first time in years an inmate may be seen with a smile on his face, finding a ray of hope during this dark time in his life.

Educational Focus

During our visit, I had the opportunity to attend one of the elective classes offered at the prison, taught by volunteer Bruce King.  He provides valuable assessments to measure inmates’ vocational competencies and gifts, where they discover the type of jobs for which they are a good fit.  They also learn how to reframe their story in a positive light and explain to employers why they are the best candidates for a particular job. This seminar gives inmates priceless tools to overcome formidable barriers to employment (such as getting hired with a criminal record), as well as the confidence to know what they are naturally good at doing.

Much more than seminars are offered.  In fact, the entire prison has an educational focus. The inmates spend their day taking both general education and elective classes. The general education classes have proven to be very successful in enabling inmates to acquire a GED certification. Elective classes are more faith-focused, allowing inmates to choose classes based on their respective faiths. Currently Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, Jehovah’s Witness, and Wiccan faiths are represented.

The electives are facilitated entirely by inmates and volunteers, as the state does not provide funding or staff to run the faith and character-based program. Two electives at the prison, Greek and Hebrew classes, are taught by seminary-trained inmates from Phillips State Prison (this prison offers courses from New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary). This model of inmate-facilitation provides a great opportunity for inmates to assume leadership roles, to grow in confidence, to hone their professional skills, and to positively impact their fellow inmates.

Beautiful Trash and Second Chances

The counselor at the prison introduced us to several inmates throughout our tour, and one of these men supervised the art program. We had the privilege of seeing pictures of some of the masterpieces this group produced. The majority of their paintings depicted scenes from the Bible, such as Jesus praying in the Garden of Gethsemane and Daniel in the lion’s den.  They paint the murals on bed sheets and donate them to churches, foster homes, vacation Bible schools, etc. The group also uses recycled cardboard to build creative works of art, including a toy castle, motorcycle, model plane, and a life-sized grandfather clock with coke insignia all over it (this piece looked so good that it’s now sitting in the Coca-Cola Museum).

The supervisor of this group of artists told us that the message they want to convey through their artwork is that God takes what the world deems as trash and turns it into something beautiful.

It is this same message of redemption that they hope to communicate with their lives.

On a larger scale, at Walker inmates are beginning to see what is possible as they develop a new way of thinking and believing, recovering what has been marred from years of destructive thought patterns. They are seeing their worth as human beings who have been given unique gifts and abilities, and recognizing fresh opportunities where they can serve other people.

For offenders who desire a second chance at life, Walker State Prison is a good place to begin this journey.

2016 Legislative Recap

The 2016 legislative session came to a close about half past midnight on the morning of March 25th. After 40 legislative days of battling over policy priorities, members of the House and Senate ended the year with cheering and tossing torn paper like confetti in the chambers.

Georgia passed a version of the ABLE Act, modeled after the federal version which passed in 2014. The new law provides for tax-free savings accounts to cover qualified disability expenses such as housing, education, or transportation, while also not affecting a disabled person’s eligibility for social security or food assistance benefits.

Tax credits for rural health care:
Modeled after the successful Tax Credit Scholarship Program, which provides education choice to more than 13,000 students, a new tax credit was created to help provide healthcare in rural Georgia. The new law allows individuals and corporations to receive a credit for donating to a rural health care organization, defined as a nonprofit that must treat patients who are indigent or on Medicaid or Medicare, and must be located in a rural county. Credits are capped at $50 million in the first year (2017), $60 million in year two, and $70 million in year three.

After three years of trying, the General Assembly passed one of their top priorities: a Religious Freedom bill. The bill mirrored language from the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which was signed by President Bill Clinton and adopted by dozens of states, requiring government to prove a “compelling governmental interest” before it interferes with a person’s exercise of religion. It also included a clause saying it could not be used to allow discrimination already banned by state or federal law. However, Georgia’s business community weighed in, asking Governor Deal for a veto, with threats of relocating if it were to become law. Ultimately, Governor Deal vetoed the bill, saying it was unnecessary and did not reflect Georgia as a “warm, friendly and loving people.”

A new law was created with the intention of helping children in the foster care system (or helping them to avoid it altogether). The law prioritizing placing children with family members or kinship caregivers for a short time, when it is in their best interest. It also gives a legal framework for families to grant Power of Attorney to these relatives or caregivers who are temporarily caring for the children.

Governor Deal announced during his State of the State address in January that he was holding off the pursuit of his large education reform package until 2017 to give the legislature and the education community more time to fully vet the proposal. This signaled that it would be a lighter year than usual for education legislation. However, a few bills were introduced and fewer still saw final passage.

PASSED:
All teachers (and other state employees) saw a 3% raise included in the budget.
A bill passed (but has not yet been signed by the Governor) that reduces the percentage of student achievement that factors into a teacher’s evaluation from 50% to 30% and reduces the number of in-classroom observations for some teachers. HB 364l could also make Georgia the only state in the nation with statewide testing in grades 1-12. The Governor has until Tuesday, May 2nd to sign or veto the bill.

DID NOT PASS:
A bill to create a new tax credit scholarship program for low/middle income children.
A bill, called “Junior GI”, to give children of military families scholarships for use during K-12 years.
A bill to give children eligible for the Georgia Special Needs Scholarship more flexibility in how they use their scholarship dollars.