On Wednesday, Senators Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) and Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) issued a report scrutinizing the management of private foster care providers, and skewering one especially notorious foster care agency.
Stirred by news stories chronicling dozens of child deaths because of management of foster care services by The MENTOR Network, a national for-profit provider, Hatch and Wyden directed the Senate Finance Committee to study the matter.
The ensuing report, entitled “An Examination of Foster Care in the United States and the Use of Privatization,” found troubling oversight of private foster care providers by child welfare agencies, and higher-than-expected rates of abuse and neglect within foster homes.
The committee singled out MENTOR as an example of what can happen when states fail to monitor, and enforce, strict rules on safety in foster care.
“State child welfare agencies report they have procedures in place to monitor child welfare providers’ performance and outcomes,” the report said. “But this investigation … shows that these policies are not always followed; exceptions are made, waivers are granted, profits are prioritized over children’s well-being, and sometimes those charged with keeping children safe look the other way.”
Hatch and Wyden followed the release of the report with new legislation introduced this week aimed at increasing the number of foster youth placed with kin, tightening state scrutiny of child fatalities and private provider performance, and improving standards on worker caseloads.
Information collected by the committee revealed that 86 children died while in the care of MENTOR’s foster parents. These deaths were rarely followed with serious analysis of the incidents, by MENTOR or the state agency, according to the report.
The company was allowed to continue operation, often after it had repeatedly failed to live up to state standards.
Maryland “noted that providers can find themselves on the agency’s ‘hotlist’ by not complying with contractual obligations or by committing license violations,” the report said.
But after it failed to meet the state’s licensing requirements in 20 out of 22 fiscal quarters, the report said, “MENTOR continues to operate in Maryland.”
MENTOR is a division of Civitas Solutions. According to information the company turned over to the committee, MENTOR managed foster care for 10,300 children in 18 states in 2014.
The report attributes the greater role of private providers to the need for specialized foster care services and a shortage of foster care homes in recent years. Private providers can have both non-profit or for-profit structures. Of the 33 states that responded to committee requests for information, 31 said they use private contractors for at least one service related to foster care. Sixteen of those 31 contract with for-profit companies like MENTOR.
Twenty-one of the states said they use private providers for case management, and 28 reported using them for support, services and training for foster families. Only six states require accreditation for all of its private providers.
But aside from its singular skewering of MENTOR, the investigation did not present evidence that private providers are worse foster care operators than public agencies.
The committee asked each state for a five-year picture of the number of substantiated cases of maltreatment in foster homes (most data provided came from between 2010 and 2015). There were 8,754 substantiated cases noted by the 32 states that replied to that question, though about half of those emanated from four states: Illinois, Massachusetts, New York and Tennessee.
Most of those 32 states were able to differentiate these cases by public and private providers.
“There was no evidence that children who were in privatized foster care settings were more likely to be re-victimized than children in publicly run foster homes,” the report said.
The rates of abuse and neglect in foster homes was higher in all 33 states than existing federal data suggests. The Department of Health and Human Services recently reported that the state median for maltreatment in care was about .35 percent, or about one-third of one percent.
The lowest rate reported by a state to the committee was 2 percent. The highest was 20 percent.
On the metric of health screening and treatment plans, the report noted dismal compliance with federal standards for both private and public agencies. In Georgia, MENTOR only complied 12 percent of the time with the standard of getting children physical and mental health assessments within 60 days of placement.
As egregious as that rate is, the overall state compliance rate in Georgia is 11 percent. The report notes other states, including Texas, where MENTOR outperformed the overall state compliance on certain health-related timelines.
“Too many saw privatization as a panacea,” said Jeremy Kohomban, CEO of The Children’s Village, in an email to The Chronicle of Social Change. “It is not, but neither is the public system.”
The Children’s Village is a private non-profit provider that manages residential, foster care and family preservation services in New York. Kohomban said both public and private child welfare actors are operating under the yoke of a dysfunctional system.
“Child Welfare is heavily regulated with confusing federal and local mandates, unrealistic expectations and a total absence of creativity when it comes to technological efficiencies,” Kohomban said. “To all this factor in the biases of poverty and race that drive our system and my only question is, why are we surprised by these findings?”
The committee report’s conclusion was that both public and private providers were licensing foster parents with “questionable backgrounds” and failed to appropriately monitor the children placed with them. The failure to effectively monitor children, the report said, was partially attributable to “turnover among staff.”
Judge Margaret Henry, a dependency court judge in Los Angeles since 2001, said the straightest line to addressing quality control in foster care is keeping more children out of placements.
“What should be addressed is how to keep children with their parents,” Henry said, in an e-mail to The Chronicle. “For what is spent on removing children from their homes and keeping them in foster care, the government could afford full-time, in-home child care for struggling parents.”
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