Ef­fort to pri­va­tize fos­ter care put on hold

State probes whether pur­chas­ing di­rec­tor com­pro­mised process.

Austin American-Statesman - - FRONT PAGE - By An­drea Ball and Julie Chang aball@statesman.com jchang@statesman.com Fos­ter care con­tin­ued on A10

A much-her­alded ef­fort to pri­va­tize fos­ter care in 30 north­west­ern Texas coun­ties is on hold while the state in­ves­ti­gates whether the bid­ding process was com­pro­mised by a pur­chas­ing di­rec­tor who is the wife of a high-rank­ing state of­fi­cial forced to re­sign in 2014.

The Health and Hu­man Ser­vices Com­mis­sion has put its re­quest for pro­pos­als for “fos­ter care re­design” on pause, say­ing in a let­ter to bid­ders that the con­tract is on hold “due to a pos­si­ble is­sue with the eval­u­a­tion pro- cess.” Of­fi­cials had an­tic­i­pated award­ing a con­tract in Jan­uary.

“As soon as there is a res­o­lu­tion to any iden­ti­fied is­sues, I will up­date you on next steps,” the let­ter states.

The de­ba­cle sur­round­ing the pri­va­ti­za­tion con­tract in­volves Fri­anita Wil­son, a pur­chas­ing di­rec­tor for Child Pro­tec­tive Ser-

vices. Wil­son is on ad­min­is­tra­tive leave be­cause of­fi­cials say she was in­volved in the bid process for the re­design con­tract and that her hus­band — for­mer Health and Hu­man Ser­vices In­spec­tor Gen­eral Doug Wil­son — now works for a non­profit that could ben­e­fit from the re­design con­tract.

Last week, Health and Hu­man Ser­vices Ex­ec­u­tive Com­mis­sioner Charles Smith sent a let­ter in­form­ing law­mak­ers of an in­ves­ti­ga­tion into a “sub­stan­tial pro­cure­ment” that hadn’t been awarded. The con­tract process had been halted, he said. Smith asked in the let­ter that the Sun­set Ad­vi­sory Com­mis­sion con­duct an in­de­pen­dent, thor­ough re­view of his agency’s con­tract­ing pro­cesses and pro­ce­dures. Cur­rent In­spec­tor Gen­eral Stuart Bowen is also in­ves­ti­gat­ing whether the con­tract process was tainted.

Doug Wil­son told the Amer­i­can-Statesman last week that his wife did noth­ing wrong and that she is be­ing un­fairly tar­geted. Nei­ther Doug nor Fri­anita Wil­son could be reached for this story.

Links to 21CT scan­dal

This is the sec­ond time Fri­anita Wil­son has been placed on leave amid con­tract ques­tions. She was a fig­ure in the 2014 21CT con­tract­ing scan­dal, which led to the res­ig­na­tion of her hus­band, among oth­ers.

Prob­lems with the 21CT deal re­volved around a $20 mil­lion con­tract be­tween the in­spec­tor gen­eral’s of­fice and 21CT to help de­tect Med­i­caid fraud. A $90 mil­lion con­tract ex­ten­sion with the com­pany was can­celed in De­cem­ber 2014 af­ter a Statesman in­ves­ti­ga­tion re­vealed an ar­ray of prob­lems, in­clud­ing the lack of a tra­di­tional bid­ding process, lit­tle over­sight and a pos­si­ble con­flict of in­ter­est.

Fri­anita Wil­son — who had ap­proved a sep­a­rate, $452,000 deal with 21CT to help the Depart­ment of Fam­ily and Pro­tec­tive Ser­vices track chil­dren — was placed on leave dur­ing the in­ves­ti­ga­tion. At the time, state of­fi­cials said they didn’t be­lieve she had done any­thing wrong and that they were tak­ing her off the job out of an abun­dance of cau­tion.

Wil­son was on leave for a year, dur­ing which time she con­tin­ued to be paid her an­nual $115,000 salary. She was later cleared of any wrong­do­ing and re­turned to work.

Now she is in­volved in the fos­ter care re­design con­tract and, again, state of­fi­cials haven’t specif­i­cally said she did any­thing wrong.

State Rep. Gio­vanni Capriglione, R-South­lake, who grilled Smith last week dur­ing a Capi­tol hear­ing about Smith’s let­ter and the pro­cure­ment in­ves­ti­ga­tion, said that when­ever the com­mis­sion fails to prop­erly over­see a con­tract with a ven­dor, vul­ner­a­ble Tex­ans are put at risk.

“One of the rea­sons for us to pro­vide so much over­sight and ac­count­abil­ity and con­text is not just be­cause we are watch­ing how tax­payer dol­lars are be­ing spent, but also be­cause these are real ser­vices that need to be per­formed in order to help low-in­come in­di­vid­u­als, dis­abled or needy in an­other way,” Capriglione said.

Capriglione said the com­mis­sion also failed to sub­mit in­for­ma­tion into a state data­base that tracks all con­tracts the state has with pri­vate en­ti­ties. He said, since last week’s hear­ing, the agency has sub­mit­ted nec­es­sary in­for­ma­tion on $50 bil­lion worth of con­tracts.

“It’s frus­trat­ing, as you can imag­ine,” he said.

A trou­bled roll­out

The fos­ter care re­design is es­sen­tially pri­va­ti­za­tion. Un­der the model, one con­trac­tor would co­or­di­nate the care of all the fos­ter chil­dren in a des­ig­nated area and make most of the big de­ci­sions in their lives, such as where they live, what ser­vices they get and what schools they at­tend.

Cur­rently, those de­ci­sions are made by nu­mer­ous agen­cies, of­ten re­sult­ing in chil­dren mov­ing out of their schools and in and out of nu­mer­ous fos­ter homes over time. Texas al­ready has one re­design re­gion cov­er­ing seven North Texas coun­ties, in­clud­ing Tar­rant, Hood and Parker coun­ties.

Fos­ter care re­design has been pro­moted to law­mak­ers this ses­sion as Child Pro­tec­tive Ser­vices comes un­der the mi­cro­scope for child deaths, high turnover and a fail­ure to see en­dan­gered chil­dren within state man­dated time frames. CPS lead­ers have pointed to re­design as a game changer, say­ing the model keeps chil­dren closer to their homes and gets them the ser­vices they need.

CPS has spent more than a decade talk­ing about pri­va­ti­za­tion, but the ef­fort has had trou­ble get­ting off the ground.

In 2006, the state was ready to award a $500 mil­lion con­tract to farm out fos­ter care ser­vices in a 28-county re­gion that in­cluded San An­to­nio, New Braun­fels, Ker­rville, Seguin and Fred­er­icks­burg. But the deal broke down amid al­le­ga­tions that one of the bid­ders had inside in­for­ma­tion into the con­tract­ing process. No con­tract was awarded, and the ef­fort was aban­doned.

The state spent years re­tool­ing the idea.

In 2013, Prov­i­dence Ser­vice Corp. signed a fiveyear, $30 mil­lion deal that in­cluded over­see­ing ser­vices for 1,100 chil­dren in West Texas. But the firm pulled out af­ter less than a year on the job, af­ter the state com­plained that the agency wasn’t meet­ing bench­marks in ar­eas such as plac­ing sib­lings to­gether and keep­ing chil­dren close to their ex­ist­ing homes.

In 2014, re­design was launched in Tar­rant and six sur­round­ing coun­ties, with ACH Child and Fam­ily Ser­vices at the helm. CPS of­fi­cials have praised the new model, say­ing it has re­sulted in bet­ter care for chil­dren.

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