As the Research and Policy Director for In the Public Interest, I regularly study the data about privatization and outsourcing proposals. I evaluate contract language, study performance metrics, and come to conclusions based on the evidence. But as a mother of a young child, I can’t help but feel emotional about some policy issues we study. Ensuring affordable access to clean water, guaranteeing high-quality educational opportunities, and protecting vulnerable citizens from harm are all incredibly important to me. I want to raise my daughter in a country where government services promote the general welfare of all Americans.
So when it comes to research into states that have outsourced their foster care systems to private entities, I look at the data and think of my own family. Recent stories and investigations into privatized foster care around the country have saddened me. I read the story of Alexandria Hill with tears in my eyes. When I came across a report about one state’s experience with privatizing its foster care system, I wanted to share with you the important findings.
This recent study of Nebraska’s five year old foster care outsourcing program came to a clear and unambiguous conclusion: “Privatization promised better outcomes at a lower cost, and that has not happened. It was, perhaps, a worthy experiment, but it has failed.” Not only did the private providers fail to reduce costs as promised, but they did not produce “any measurable benefit.”
Outcomes achieved for families and children by the private provider were no better than those produced by the public agency. Any cost savings seen in the private program were the result of shifting costs to clients, the very families seeking help from the foster system, or to other publicly-funded programs like Medicaid. Foster care workers who work for the state were more likely to write comprehensive reports while workers employed by the private provider were more likely to copy and paste their descriptions of a case from one document to another without making any updates. In short, the authors found “Privatization has caused disruption and dissension among the parties and within the community without obvious benefits to children and families.”
Some states’ public agencies have had their own failings, but Nebraska’s experience helps us understand why privatization doesn’t solve the problems of inadequate funding, understaffed departments, and the lack of robust oversight of the public agency.
The lives of children in our communities are far too precious to play games with. States that have outsourced their child welfare systems should do their own research and come to conclusions based on the facts. States that haven’t yet handed over control of child welfare to private companies should learn from the multiple failings of other states and look for ways to strengthen existing programs instead of conducting experiments that use kids in ideologically driven experiments.