03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

The Privatization of Our Children

What is the cost of privatizing the care of our foster children?

A boy died in Siskiyou County this summer. Across the rural, sparsely populated county in far Northern California, people looked to blame someone, something for the two-year-old's death. Was it the fault of the woman taking caring of the toddler, the third foster parent in twice as many months? Was it the fault of Child Protective Services (CPS)? Or was it the fault of the private, non-profit foster care agency that the county had entrusted with the toddler's life?

Between sobs, the social worker from the private agency that had placed the boy told me that this was just a tragic and random event and that speculating on this incident, where a baby boy was found dead in his crib, was little more than hurtful to the people involved.

But I am of a different mind. When a child dies, it is imperative to scrutinize the cumulative cause of a child's passing.

In this case the child was left in the care of a 77-year-old woman. The toddler had been moved from the home of another foster parent three weeks earlier, a home where the young boy was thriving, according to both a CPS report and statements from neighbors.

The foster mother whom the toddler was taken from can't stop crying. In the five months that the brown-haired boy lived with her, she had grown to love him, even wanted to adopt him. She holds pictures in her shaking hand: him splashing in a baby pool on her front lawn, of him smiling in her arms and of him lying in a baby-blue casket, a wreath of white roses atop his head.

And from a well of rage she levels a strong accusation: that the private, non-profit foster care agency that took him from her did so to maintain a placement, keep a kid in care and thus keep state money flowing in. This estimation is cynical. People who work in Child Welfare overwhelmingly do so out of a love for children, but, unfortunately, that love is not shared by profit's unbending bottom line.

While the director of the private, non-profit agency that had taken the boy would not discuss the case in detail, he did take time to tell me how business was for the hundreds of private, non-profit Foster Family Agencies (FFAs) that have popped up all over rural California and the rest of the country. "Of course, it is very important that we continue to get placements and foster parents," he said. If not, his agency and all his competitors would be out of business; keeping kids in care keeps bread on his table.

It is important to note that the rise of public foster care in this country was a way to de-institutionalize orphans who, up until the creation of foster care, were cared for by private organizations. Private enterprise has its advantages; it can implement innovative pilot programs and invariably moves much faster than the ossified foster care system. But without adequate regulation, an undeniable conflict arises. To profit and prosper, private enterprise must keep children in care, even if that isn't in the best interest of children.

In 1986, the California State Legislature allowed the development of FFAs. The intent was that these private entities would come in to place children with special needs. Despite the narrow intention of the state, FFAs did what profit-driven organizations do: they multiplied, and soon the foothold they had in foster care was an escalator.

In 1996 there were around 14,500 children placed by FFAs in California, and, by January 2008, at the peak, more than 20,000 kids were placed in FFAs, according to the California Department of Social Services. The number is even more significant when considering the trend of reduced overall numbers of foster children in care. From a peak of nearly 90,000 total kids in care in 1998 the number has steadily dropped to 65,000 in early 2009. Today well over a third of California foster children are not cared for by the state, but by private, non-profit agencies.

In rugged Siskiyou County, 110 of 123 total foster children are placed by foster family agencies, according to county's Human and Health Services (HHS) director. And as agencies like the one that moved the now buried two-year-old have taken over care, the director explains that HHS has "turned a lot of responsibility over to the foster family agencies." In the case of the young boy who died in August, the move was precipitated by the private agency not the public one.

This harkens to a deep-seeded belief in this country, that if a public service like foster care is faltering, private enterprise can come in and do it more efficiently. In Florida, foster care was privatized after four of five pilot programs crashed and burned -- today there is no way to judge its success because there is no effective monitoring program in place. Kansas, one of the pioneers of privatization, has been lambasted for its performance and in rural California the results have been mixed.

In Siskiyou county where 87.4% of children are placed with FFAs compared to 43.9% of the general California foster care population, county social workers were 10% less likely to make their mandated monthly visits than their colleagues across the state, according to statistics furnished by UC Berkeley's Center for Social Services Research. Public social workers, pushed to the limits by heavy caseloads, take advantage of private social workers because there is simply not enough time in the day to see every child.

While in Yreka, the Siskiyou County seat, I stopped into one of a handful of foster agencies that dot the small town. I sat with a woman who felt that she was doing God's work by helping children. But she also realized that doing God's work came with a price. "To be honest. It's about the placements, that's the bottom line," she said.

For the young boy buried on the long flank of Siskiyou County's towering Mt. Shasta, we may never know how much the bottom line contributed to his death. But the question must be floated: can we as a society be engaged in privatizing our children?

Also published in the Los Angeles Daily News.