Experts Disagree About Benefits of Child Welfare Privatization

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Growing numbers of public child welfare agencies are entering into arrangements with private entities to provide services for children and families. However, experts do not always agree on the value of these efforts, in terms of cost savings, efficiency, and improved outcomes.

A 2003 study by the policy department of Children's Rights, Privatization of Child Welfare Services: Challenges and Successes, reveals mixed results. The study examines the strengths and weaknesses of privatization initiatives in Kansas, Florida (Sarasota County), Missouri, Ohio (Hamilton County), Michigan (Wayne County), and Maine. From these case studies, the authors cite a number of lessons learned:

* Public agencies should not expect cost savings from privatization.
* Greater efficiency will not be achieved simply because a private agency assumes responsibility for service provision.
* A "phased-in" approach to privatization (including broad-based community planning, pilot projects, and/or transitional contracts) is most successful.

A 2000 policy study by Reason Public Policy Institute (RPPI), Child-Welfare Reform and the Role of Privatization, on the other hand, cites the positive outcomes for children and families of privatization efforts in Kansas, Florida, Arizona, and other States.

Lisa Snell, Director of Education and Child Welfare at RPPI, agrees that cost savings and efficiency, while sometimes achieved, are not the strongest arguments for child-welfare privatization. She argues that it is more important to focus on improvements in service.

"In my experience," Snell says, "The quality of services provided to families often improves [in privatized systems] because contractors know their contracts can be pulled. In the public system, that incentive does not exist."

Some findings of the RPPI study include:

* Foster-care contractors in Kansas were meeting or exceeding outcome measures relating to protecting children's safety, limiting the number of moves, maintaining children within regional boundaries, and maintaining family and community ties for children.
* Participants in privatized, voluntary services for low-risk families in Arizona experienced very low levels of further substantiated incidents of abuse, compared to similar families investigated by child protective services.
* A pilot program of privatized foster care and related services in Sarasota County, Florida, cut the length of stay in foster care from 20 months to 13 months, doubled the number of adoptions in a year from 20 to 40, and decreased the caseload per social worker from about 41 to 19.

A final copy of the Children's Rights study can be obtained by calling the Child Welfare League of America, at (202) 638-2952. More information about Children's Rights can be found on their Web site, www.childrensrights.org.

RPPI's Policy Study can be found on their Web site at www.rppi.org/ps271.html. Two articles in the November 2002 edition of Privatization Watch (www.rppi.org/privwatch.html), "Keys to Success in the Florida Child Welfare Privatization Effort" and "Kansas Shows How the Use of Data Can Improve Practice", focus on improving the effectiveness of privatization efforts through the use of outcomes-focused data, contract marketing and performance incentives, and strategies to reduce the foster care population.

Children's Bureau Express Colume 4, Number 2
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