SB 350 would have been an amendment to Chapter 2 of Title 49 of the Official Code of Georgia Annotated 49-1-1: Title 49 is identified as pertaining to Social Services, Chapter 2 is identified as pertaining to the Department of Human Services, Article 1 is identified as pertaining to General Provisions, and Article 2 is identified as pertaining to Inspection Warrants for Residential Child Care Licensing. Passage of SB 350 legislation would amend existing law by adding a new article, Article 3.
The legislative process for SB 350 is described in the Georgia General Assembly website (2014). Senator Renee Unterman of District 45 first placed Senate Bill 350 in the Senate Hopper on February 3, 2014. It had its first reading in the Senate on February 4, 2014 after which it was referred to the Senate Health and Human Services Committee that which produced a Substitute bill on February 11, 2014. Duties of the Senate Health and Human Services Committee, chaired by Senator Unterman, are to study legislation influencing the circumstances of safety regulations, healthcare, and social services as well as addressing legal areas encompassing medical professionals and medicinal provisions. The bill’s second reading occurred on February 17, 2014 and a minority report was filed. Democrats who sit on the Senate Health and Human Services Committee wrote a minority report reflecting their opposing position to the majority position noting that the bill would also cost the state more money. The Substitute bill was then read a third time and passed on a second vote of (Yea) 31 to (Nay) 18 on February 18, 2014. Once in the House of Representatives, the bill was first read on February 19, 2014 with the second reading on February 20, 2014. The bill was then referred to the House of Representative’s Judiciary Committee that which produced a Substitute bill on March 11, 2014. Duties of the House Judiciary Committee, chaired by Representative Wendell Willard, include the consideration of actions regarding law, courts and judges, and constitutional amendments, as well as legislation for which civil penalties can be incurred. On March 18, 2014, the Substitute bill: had its third read; the third reading lost; was reconsidered; and finally passed on the third vote of (Yea) 104 to (Nay) 70. At this point, the language and meaning of SB 350 had changed significantly to become a request for a two-year pilot program to test the privatization of child welfare services. Upon its return to the Senate, the House Substitute bill was further amended and subsequently passed on the first vote of (Yea) 41 to (Nay) 9 on March 20, 2014. Because the House and Senate passed different versions of SB 350, a conference committee would have needed to be convened in order to draft a final bill. SB 350 is officially considered to have failed to pass.
The issues surrounding SB 350 were initially explored by Lieutenant Governor Casey Cagle’s Georgia Senate Foster Care Initiative Working Group, chaired by Senator Fran Millar of District 40. Six other members of the Group were: Senator Dean Burke of District 11; Senator Rick Jeffares of District 17; Senator Freddie Powell Sims of District 12; Senator Horacena Tate of District 38; Senator Renee Unterman of District 45; and Senator John Wilkinson of District 50. A total of four formal public hearings were held: 1) November 12, 2013, 2) November 25, 2013, 3) December 12, 2013, and 4) January 14, 2014.
The most identifiable proponent, and a public hearing witness, associated with SB 350 is Richard L. Jackson, a Georgia Department of Community Health board member. Additionally he serves as chair and chief executive officer of Jackson Healthcare, the third largest health care staffing company in the U.S. A product of Georgia’s child welfare system, Mr. Jackson supports many charitable organizations serving children in the system. Mr. Jackson was one of many proponents of SB 350 giving testimony, some of who described similar child welfare situations in other states, and others of who are affiliated with organizations currently in child welfare public-private partnerships.
As the most identifiable opponent of SB 350 as introduced, Melissa D. Carter, Director of the Barton Child Law and Policy Center at Emory University School of Law, also gave testimony at the hearings. Ms. Carter observed that the recent deaths of two children associated with Georgia’s child welfare system are not representative of the system on a daily basis. Primarily, Ms. Carter reviewed how reforms in Georgia’s foster care system have led, and continue to lead, to progress in overcoming challenges in many areas over the past ten years. Ms. Carter was the principal opponent invited to give testimony at the hearings.
Senator Unterman’s office indicated there were no similar bills introduced during this legislative session, either in the House or the Senate. Multiple changes have been made in the legislation wording of SB 350. At this point, there are no indicators of particular opposition to the current legislation.
The House Judiciary Committee Substitute bill proposes to amend Chapter 2 of Title 49 of the Official Code of Georgia Annotated (O.C.G.A., 2014). Substitute SB 350 did not eliminate any provisions of the current law (Georgia General Assembly, 2014). This version of the substitute provides for the establishment of a pilot program, to begin on July 1, 2014, as it relates to the privatization of certain child welfare services. Additional administrative issues addressed are with regard to legislative findings, definitions, a final report, etc.
Role of the Governor
As a result of these debates over the complex issues of Georgia’s child welfare system, Governor Nathan Deal has become more involved. On March 13, 2014, Governor Deal created the Child Welfare Reform Council for the purposes of reviewing DFCS and advising on executive agency reforms and legislative fixes. Stephanie Blank, a child advocate serving on the Georgia State Advisory Council on Early Childhood Education and Care is chairing the Governor’s Child Welfare Reform Council. The other nineteen Council members will be relied on to present and consider the many issues of affecting children’s lives. Included in the Council is Melissa D. Carter, Director of the Barton Child Law and Policy Center at Emory University School of Law. Not included in the Council is Richard L. Jackson, Georgia Department of Community Health board member and chair and chief executive officer of Jackson Healthcare. The Council is tasked to meet throughout the remainder of this year and work with the Governor’s Office and the Department of Human Services.