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Privatizing Child Protective Services Would Be Bad for Texas

CPS has asked the Legislature to rapidly expand and fully fund Foster Care Redesign. We should do that. At the same time, we should keep a public caseworker making decisions based on the child’s best interest.

Columns appearing on the service and this webpage represent the views of the authors, not of The University of Texas at Austin.

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Everyone is frustrated with the problems at Child Protective Services and looking for a solution. If a doctor misdiagnoses what ails a patient, though, and consequently prescribes the wrong remedy, you can end up killing the patient. We may be on the verge of doing just that.

Texas legislators are discussing bills that 1) misdiagnose what ails CPS, a lack of funding, and 2) prescribe the wrong medicine, privatization.

Properly funded, CPS can do the job. Gov. Greg Abbott and the state Legislature are moving to provide adequate funding. We just need to give CPS time to deploy these new resources. If instead we privatize CPS, things will only get worse.

Here’s how privatization works: CPS still investigates child abuse. After CPS takes a case to court, however, if the court names the state as the guardian of a child (called conservatorship), the state delegates its responsibility as guardian by contract to a nonprofit corporation.

The contractor is then in charge of prosecuting the ongoing civil court case against the child’s parents for termination of parental rights, as well as making decisions about where the child lives and what services the family gets.

At the same time, the contractor is making more or less money depending on what decisions it makes about the child and family, creating a serious financial conflict of interest. After all, the bottom line governs nonprofits just like for-profits.

While the state would monitor minimum operating standards through licensing and contract compliance through quality assurance, CPS would have no authority or the ability to override individual decisions regarding the best interest of the child or the legal rights of the family, eliminating a critical check and balance.

Texas has had some very bad experiences with privatization in other areas. States that have privatized CPS, for example Florida, have had bad experiences too.

After recently finding that Florida’s privatized system is underperforming in critical areas, the federal government gave that state 90 days to produce a plan to improve its care of foster children. Florida has three times the rate of child maltreatment in foster care as Texas and three times the rate of re-enter into foster care.

Privatization is also expensive. Once a state awards the initial private contract and dismantles its public workforce, when it’s time to negotiate the next contract, the state is at the mercy of the few contractors who do this work — what economists call an oligopoly. An honest fiscal note for privatization would be staggering.

We won’t save money by reducing duplication. Although contractors have “case managers,” they are coordinating foster care and treatment services, not providing case planning or legal services. If the state were to privatize, the private contractor would still need two people doing these different tasks, each a heavy load by itself.

Although some tout privatization as “community based,” in fact, the private contractor is as likely to be from Tampa as Texas. The nonprofits able to bid on these contracts are largely out of state.

Contractors would also be free to impose whatever polices they wish without public notice or comment, as long as they didn’t violate the law or their contract, and would not be subject to open meetings or open records laws.

Even moving as fast as possible, privatization would take years to implement. In the meantime, most children and families would remain in the public system. Deciding that we are going to privatize, however, would derail public improvement efforts and throw our public workforce into turmoil just after we have taken steps to stabilize the workforce by raising salaries and lowering caseloads.

Texas already has a project called Foster Care Redesign to give private providers a greater role in finding homes for children, coordinating family treatment plans, and engaging local communities.

CPS has asked the Legislature to rapidly expand and fully fund Foster Care Redesign. We should do that. At the same time, we should keep a public caseworker making decisions based on the child’s best interest regarding their future and their family.

F. Scott McCown is a clinical professor of law and director of the Children’s Rights Clinic at The University of Texas at Austin.

A verison of this op-ed appeared in the Houston ChronicleDallas Morning News and the Austin American Statesman.

To view more op-eds from Texas Perspectives, click here.

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Texas Perspectives is a wire-style service produced by The University of Texas at Austin that is intended to provide media outlets with meaningful and thoughtful opinion columns (op-eds) on a variety of topics and current events. Authors are faculty members and staffers at UT Austin who work with University Communications to craft columns that adhere to journalistic best practices and Associated Press style guidelines. The University of Texas at Austin offers these opinion articles for publication at no charge. Columns appearing on the service and this webpage represent the views of the authors, not of The University of Texas at Austin.

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