Reprinted with the permission of the Atlanta Journal and the Atlanta Constitution.

Close ties bind public agency, private school
No bids: Critics say Georgia must do a better job of training child protection workers. But comparative evaluations of classes have been impossible because only one company has had the business.

Got a tip? Want to blow the whistle? Email Lucy Soto.

Without competition and regular scrutiny, even promising, innovative ideas can falter.

It's a problem when those ideas are backed by tax dollars. But it's unacceptable when it involves the lives of children.

Consider Georgia's much-touted effort to train child protection workers. Partially funded by one of Georgia's most prestigious foundations, one private school has had a lock on this training for eight years -- without any competitive bidding or even an independent evaluation to gauge its effectiveness.

The story reaches back a decade. Children were dying while under state protection, after they had been reported as victims of abuse or neglect. Among other problems, a task force blamed lack of training, saying caseworkers weren't adequately taught to recognize danger signs in children's homes.

In response, the Robert W. Woodruff Foundation joined the state Division of Family and Children Services to create a new private training academy. Plans were made for the Georgia Academy to train every state child protection worker.

Today, $32 million and 22,000 students later, training is once more at issue. A recent Journal-Constitution analysis of 513 children's deaths showed DFACS workers often missed repeated warning signs that children were in danger.

A series of public forums to respond to this latest crisis drew 1,500 participants. One of their top issues: inadequate training to prepare workers to make the life-and-death decisions needed to safeguard children. Participants said the training has been too theoretical and that trainers need to have been DFACS workers with experience out in the field.

"The frustration at the county level is [child protection workers] still aren't ready to come out and take on a full caseload," Peg Peters said late last year. Peters was removed as state director of DFACS in October. "They come back [from training], and they still can't work a case."

Georgia Academy's director, Joe Raymond, insists the training is working. He blames DFACS caseworkers' problems on other hurdles: low pay, extremely high turnover and huge caseloads. He also says supervisors and managers aren't making sure caseworkers use their training once they return to the job.

"There's no way you can take those factors and training alone will solve it," Raymond says. "It's too overwhelming."

Since its creation, the academy hasn't maintained much of an arms-length relationship with the agency it serves. It hasn't had to. DFACS ' parent agency, the Department of Human Resources, has never placed the work out for competitive bid.

The academy also developed important connections. The new state director of DFACS worked for a private-public group that is administered by the academy and run out of the same offices. And the head of a task force looking for ways to reform DFACS was the academy's first chairman of the board. The task force's $90,000 in expenses were even paid with funds funneled through the academy.

That panel is supposed to issue a list of recommendations this week.

The academy's no-bid arrangement was challenged in 1995, when Thomas Morton of the Child Welfare Institute asked the state attorney general's office to give its opinion.

Morton argued his organization, which also trains child social workers, could provide the same kind of services, so there was no justification for DFACS to keep the contract from being publicly bid. Georgia law discourages sole-source contracts like the Georgia Academy's and encourages competition.

State officials agreed with Morton. Then-DHR Commissioner Tommy Olmstead told the Child Welfare Institute that, based on an opinion from the attorney general, he was going to open the process to competitive bidding. But three months later, while Morton waited for his invitation to bid, the department reversed itself. A letter from Olmstead to Morton's attorney said an "exhaustive evaluation" showed the Georgia Academy would be the only source to meet the department's needs.

Department memos from the time show the big worry was losing Woodruff money. And they said loss of the academy would cause a "chilling effect on private investment of the public sector."

"The availability of Woodruff funds was used to justify the sole source arrangement," Morton says. "There is such political pressure to protect the academy."

Charles McTier, president of the Woodruff Foundation, says he never intervened to keep the academy in place. Yet, McTier says, Woodruff and its partner, the John B. Whitehead Foundation, "still believe the academy is the most capable resource for training in Georgia. That's why we continue to invest in it."

Georgia also plans to maintain its share of the investment, although new DFACS director Juanita Blount-Clark acknowledged that training procedures should be re-examined as part of her effort to overhaul the agency.

"As we do our analysis ... to make sure we have competent workers," she says, "we'll look at what the academy has done and whether the rationale is there to continue a sole-source."

E-mail Lucy Soto at Spotlight

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