Effort to privatize foster care put on hold
State probes whether purchasing director compromised process.
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.