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Senate passes foster care reform bill inspired by Gwinnett case

Emani Moss

Emani Moss

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Renee Unterman

Georgia senators spent hours debating political philosophy Tuesday, but at the heart of the issue was a 10-year-old Lawrenceville girl.

Emani Moss, whose starvation death last year sparked criticism of the state Department of Family and Children Services, was remembered in the debate on a proposal to allow for child welfare services to be bid upon by public and private contractors.

“It was what really made a big impact on me,” Sen. Renee Unterman said of the girl’s tragic death, a case for which her father and stepmother face the death penalty. “That, to me, is proof that the system is grossly broken. … If she would have been taken out (of her home) and put into foster care, she could have been taken care of.”

“Private-public partnerships are critical to ensuring the welfare of Georgia’s children, especially those in foster care,” said Unterman, the Buford senator who chairs the Senate Health and Human Services Committee who sponsored the bill, which now goes before the state House of Representatives. “This legislation will provide a greater level of local support to Georgia’s children and families while also improving access to resources, services and support.”

The 31-18 Senate vote mostly fell along party lines, Unterman said, explaining that Republicans generally support allowing private businesses and non-profits to create more efficient government services. In the end, though, she said, the senators all had the goal of protecting Georgia’s children.

The proposal, which would allow services including foster care, adoption and case management to be handled by private or public providers after a competitive bidding process, was developed during a series a public hearing last fall as part of Lt. Gov Casey Cagle’s Foster Care Reform Initiative Working Group, a press release said.

“Today, the Georgia State Senate put children first by voting to reform the way we provide protection to the most vulnerable little ones among us,” Cagle said Tuesday in a statement, thanking Unterman as well as Sen. Fran Millar, who represents the Peachtree Corners area and who chaired the working group. “Today’s bill would allow us to partner with nonprofit and faith based groups who have made it their mission to provide a better future for Georgia’s at risk kids. Additionally it brings real accountability to the process and, most importantly, will improve outcomes for those children, who through no fault of their own, find themselves needing the care and protection of us all.

“Government has a responsibility to look after children who find themselves at risk. And, as a man of faith, I believe that God calls all of us to ‘give justice to the weak and the fatherless; maintain the right of the afflicted and the destitute. Rescue the weak and the needy; deliver them from the hand of the wicked,’” Cagle added. “With today’s actions the Senate lived up to our calling to protect Georgia’s most vulnerable children and I couldn’t be prouder of those who stood with us today to do the right thing.”

The bill would make DFACS responsible for setting the standards for the competitive bidding process. It would be slowly phased in over a two-year period with a plan for the bidding process due to the governor by Jan. 1, 2015.

If the bill passes the General Assembly and is signed by the governor, DFACS must secure a federal waiver from the Administration for Children and Families by April 1 for the plan to receive federal financing and become fully implemented, the release said.