Family Values

When the state's foster-care system doesn't work, there's always the private sector. but sometimes that doesn't work, either.

CPAs are licensed by the state's Child Care Licensing unit; county social service departments contract with CPAs to place kids in homes, which the CPAs then supervise. When the state began collecting statistics in 1986, there were 49 child-placement agencies in Colorado. As of July 1, 1998, that number had almost doubled. Though some of those CPAs handle only adoptions, both in this country and abroad, Dana Andrews, the state's child-care licensing administrator, describes the increase in private child-placement agencies as significant and says the number of CPAs really began to escalate in the early 1990s, due largely to a rise in drug and alcohol cases that required special care.

At the same time, foster parents who worked with counties began jumping ship. "Foster parents who work for counties became very disenchanted with the level of service they were getting," says Sandra Barnes, a foster-care coordinator at a CPA called Adoption Alliance in Aurora. Barnes says kids were coming into the system at a younger age and with more serious medical and behavioral problems, and the counties were not there to provide therapy or to provide support--24-hour hotlines, a caseworker who came by regularly, someone to listen and offer advice when a kid sawed off the end of a living-room table or set something on fire. "Child-placement agencies rose to fulfill that need," she says.

But it came with a cost.

Colorado counties dole out money to both county-run foster homes and to private CPAs. While most of the 104 CPAs in the state are nonprofits, 28 of them are profit-making entities. And the state pays more for the services of the private agencies: In fiscal year 1997, the state paid an average of $1,058 per month to foster parents in county-administered programs; foster parents who worked through CPAs earned $1,691.

Many observers say CPAs are motivated more by money than by helping children. "We now have profit-making agencies finding homes for kids," says attorney David Littman, who has worked many juvenile court cases as a guardian ad litem, or legal representative for kids.

"I think some CPAs are in this for the business," says Joyce Wilson, the supervisor for foster-care licensing at the Jefferson County Department of Social Services. However, she adds that it's not a job that will make anyone rich. But according to an August 1998 audit of the Child Welfare Services Division, as much as 65 percent of the fees paid to CPAs might be used for administrative purposes or purposes other than those related to the direct care and maintenance of the children in placement. Counties also have administrative and clerical costs, but the largest counties are able to spread those costs among more foster homes than CPAs can. That means the average overhead spent on a county foster home in a large county such as Denver is less than for a CPA home.

Child-welfare workers agree that CPA costs are higher because CPAs provide children with more sophisticated services than county-run foster homes. But the state audit notes that "neither the [state] nor the counties know whether this is reasonable or appropriate or whether the comparable services could be provided more or less efficiently by the state. Consequently, the state may be paying too much for activities and tasks not necessarily related to the direct care and treatment of children in out-of-home placement."

"When you don't know what services you're paying for and what the outcomes are, you get a system that doesn't make a lot of sense," says deputy state auditor Joanne Hill, who led the audit.

"There are a lot of good foster parents out there," notes LaBella. Speaking of a young girl with a long list of medical problems whom she's trying to adopt, La Bella says, "If I wasn't able to adopt her, she'd be stuck in the system. They sound like we're putting kids in the closet and making money."

But Jefferson County's Wilson is wary of private placement agencies. "You start making this a business and you start getting abuses that are pretty significant. Businesses want people. They're gonna say, 'So, they lost their driver's license, but we'll give them a lot of counseling.' They'll take risks county agencies won't."

Colorado is one of only a few states that has a state-supervised, county-administered child-welfare system (most other states have state-supervised and state-run child-welfare systems). That means Colorado's Division of Child Welfare Services, part of the Department of Human Services, lays down the rules for all of the state's child-welfare programs and then passes out the money--$196.2 million in fiscal year 1997--to county social service departments, and each county is essentially autonomous. It's as if the state has 63 separate child-welfare programs. And now the state is in the late stages of shifting to a managed-care model in which counties will assume the financial risk of delivering child-welfare programs; legislators hope they will use their now limited resources more efficiently and with greater accountability.

But part of the system's out-of-control costs are attributable to the fact that CPAs are draining a disproportionate amount of funds from the system.

When child-placement agencies began to emerge, says guardian ad litem Littman, "they came in and represented to the state and county that they would do a better job than social services. The reality is, there have been some very good child-placement agencies and very bad ones."

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