Critics of a recent competition to care for the state’s troubled children claim the state favored fledgling companies with slick sales pitches over veteran firms with solid reputations.
That complaint, coupled with state plans to yank money away from some established Spokane treatment homes, is triggering an uproar headed for the state Capitol.
The head of the House human services committee says she wants to hold a hearing on the controversy by early February.
State Rep. Suzette Cooke, R-Kent, and other legislators fear the state botched its efforts to improve care and stretch tax dollars.
“The agency is taking a high risk in going with providers who are not as seasoned in residential treatment programs,” Cooke says.
She calls it too late to overturn the contract decisions by the state Department of Social and Health Services. “But we may be able to present some corrective action.”
Winners of the state’s recent contract competition include a small, for-profit firm on Whidbey Island that doesn’t yet have facilities for most of the children it will service.
Losers included some of the state’s oldest, most reputable treatment centers.
In Spokane, Excelsior Youth Center, the Morning Star Boys’ Ranch and the Cannon Hill Children’s Services all suffered major cuts because the state intends to send many of the children elsewhere.
Excelsior lost about half of its state money. Morning Star lost almost all of it. So did Cannon Hill, which is considering shutting its doors after 20 years of service.
The three treatment centers traditionally care for about 130 kids, most of whom suffer mental, drug and behavior problems. The centers have a combined 140 years of helping troubled and dangerous youth.
It now appears about 30 girls at Excelsior, ages 8 to 17, will have to move to new homes during the next four months.
About 20 boys may have to leave the Morning Star Boys’ Ranch - unless money is found elsewhere.
The changes shock some Spokane officials familiar with the programs.
“Immediately, I wondered where these kids are going to go. I wondered if they’re going to have as good of a quality of life,” says Ed Gaffney, director of special services for Spokane School District 81.
Gaffney says the district has had a great working relationship with Excelsior and Morning Star for many years.
The district provides teachers and textbooks. The treatment centers provide classrooms and care.
“We’ve seen tremendous success of the students,” Gaffney says. “They come to school prepared.”
State Rep. Lisa Brown, D-Spokane, says she plans to question state officials for a better explanation for their decisions.
“Some of the institutions that are losing do have good reputations,” she says. “I have not seen proof of cost savings or improved quality.”
The state’s contract decisions reflect a new philosophy in handling troubled kids. Long-term, group-home treatment is less popular. Short-term, intensive foster home, or other in-home care, is the rage.
The new state contracts significantly increases the number of children the state cares for in their own homes, or in foster homes.
The idea is to offer a wider range of care options better tailored to the specific needs of the children. The program costs taxpayers $25 million a year to care for about 950 children.
An effort to treat more children near or in their original homes also helped persuade the state to pull many of its West Side children out of Spokane treatment homes.
This new agenda is driven by concerns that taxpayers spend so much on institutions it short changes in-home counseling that can preserve traditional families.
Top agency officials in Olympia say the new contracts give the state more flexibility to treat troubled teens, and a better way to track progress.
“We just believe the (new) services are better targeted for their needs,” says Tammy Cordova, group-care program manager for the state’s children services.
Cordova also indicated a new round of contracts in the next week may be won by some of the firms now feeling blindsided by the state’s first rebidding of the contracts in 12 years.
“The jury is out as to whether services are going to be better, worse or stay the same,” says Roy Harrington, the state’s regional administrator for children and family services in Spokane.
Harrington says the new programs will not likely save money. “This isn’t going to be cheaper, not the way I look at the figures.”
Some state case workers see the changes as foolish and naive. They say it’s unwise, and possibly cruel, to move kids from stable treatment homes into new, less supervised settings.
“We’re just appalled at this,” says a case worker, with clients at Excelsior. “My concern is the staff at Excelsior has lots of expertise in dealing with these kids. The kids I have there are sexual predators. They are suicidal, homicidal. These kids are extremely disturbed. You can’t move a child to a resource that doesn’t exist, to a brand new facility, to a brand new staff that doesn’t have a clue about these kids.”
Administrators at Excelsior, Morning Star and Cannon Hill all criticized the state’s contract bidding process. They called the state’s questions vague and confusing.
A member of Spokane’s review team, which helped the state examine contract proposals, agrees the process was flawed.
“I think the decisions that were made were not good decisions,” says the woman, who doesn’t want to be named. Evaluations should have included interviews with care providers, she says.
Instead, there was only a grading of multi-hundred page proposals, some of which arrived in loose boxes, others fashionably bound. “It’s no way to judge a program,” she says.
The state’s contract decisions also outraged West Side service agencies.
“They are trying to spread their resources one-mile wide and oneinch thick,” says Julie Bonsteel, director of Faith Homes, based in Tacoma. “Kids are going to get hurt.”
The biggest contract winner was a private, for-profit Puget Sound firm, which sent its proposals to the state in handsome, bound binders. Service Alternatives for Washington gained responsibility for 187 children, but doesn’t have any place to care for many of them.
Earlier this week, the firm was trying to negotiate with Morning Star to subcontract some of its caseload to the Spokane home.
After toying with the idea, Morning Star turned it down.
Forbes Rodgers, assistant director, says Morning Star would rather find other money than do business with a company set up to profit on troubled kids.
“We feel there is an ethical question there,” he says.
A Service Alternatives spokesman describes the firm as a creative resource for the state to better perform its job. He also says the company will do everything it can to minimize the disturbance, or the change in continuity of the child care.
State lawmakers indicate they intend to question state officials about contracting such a large portion of the children’s services with a forprofit company.