FRANKFORT -- A legislative committee heard testimony that more privatization of child welfare services will be a fact of life for Kentucky in the future.

Eric Clark, commissioner of the Department for Community Based Services, said as much to the Child Welfare and Oversight and Advisory Committee on Monday.

"Kentucky already has a substantial privatized system when it comes to foster care, congregate care, group homes, etc., providing services," he said. "Actually, we've been semi-privatized since the 1970s, so this is not new to the Commonwealth of Kentucky."

He said while the Kentucky General Assembly passed adoption and foster care reform legislation in 2018, Congress was also enacting sweeping changes to the system known as the Family First Prevention Services Act.

"That's going to really shift and re-orient child welfare systems across the nation to look more at prevention services and how we can leverage federal funding and evidence-based practices to prevent children from coming into foster care," Clark said. "Since we are committed to being an early implementer of that federal act, we took it into consideration when we did our performance-based contracting work and privatization work."

Jennifer Hall, executive director of Key Assets Kentucky, was part of the study group that put together recommendations for privatization and performance-based contracts for state officials to consider.

"We were all very much in favor of all providers being held accountable for the services they are providing for kids in care," she said. "What we need to come to an agreement on is how are we going to do that?"

Key Assets Kentucky offers residential treatment group home care for youth with autistic and/or developmental disabilities, and behavioral health counseling services for youth, adults and families in times of crisis.

Clark told the lawmakers Kentucky's adoption system isn't ready for full privatization. "It's going to take infrastructure within our department, a new way of operating. It's going to take an investment. But make no mistake, there is real opportunity to expand our services among the private sector to meet the needs of our families and children."

Grace Akers, chief executive officer of St. Joseph Children's Home, described some of what is already done by outside groups.

"Privates already do the work of family preservation," Akers said. "They do a lot of work in recruitment, training and certification of foster care. They do a lot of work in the fields of independent living and post-adoption services."

One thing she recommends not be privatized is case management.

"The day-to-day decisions you make for families, presenting cases in court. When the case moves from reunification, to relative care, to adoption, it's that work we define as case management."

Akers said there was one unanimous recommendation regarding privatization by the study group. "Before we move forward, we believe that both public and private capacities in infrastructure need to be built."

She also offered a warning that it is cost prohibitive.

"It is going to take resources, and there's going to be a cost component to it. We're all going to have to wrestle with that for us to be successful."

Chris Johnson, Gov. Matt Bevin's advisor on adoption and foster care issues and a member of the study group, said he is fully on board with the recommendations.

"Their understanding of where we're at in our system and where we need to be, I think is very clear and accurate."

Rep. David Meade, R-Stanford and co-chair of the committee, said the process needs to be carefully studied.

"Our state is ready in some areas to privatize (but) in other areas they are not. In those areas where they are not, it's going to take some time to get the infrastructure in place and it's a process that needs to be deliberate and well thought out."

Meade says more privatization is inevitable.

"It's going to be a process of probably several years before we get that completely, but we do have components that we can start privatizing now," Meade said. "I don't know that it will ever be completely privatized, but I think we will see a system that has a vast majority of it privatized."

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