Georgia initiated First Placement/Best Placement during 1999, which enables private contractors to conduct assessments for youth in foster care. The provider has 30 days after the DFCS custody hearing to assess the family and work with the caseworker to develop a plan for wraparound services for the family. The providers have the authority to assign any services to the family that can move the case into permanency planning — from parenting classes to interpreter services. Many of the service providers who conduct the assessments also provide services, so there is continuity of service provision. In addition to interviewing children, parents, and foster parents, the service providers arrange for dental, medical, and hearing exams to determine the health of the child. Family trees also are developed to identify relatives who may be able to provide care. Children older than 3 years and 11 months also receive a psychological evaluation by the contractors. The providers then follow through with the caseworkers, presenting their findings and recommendations.
At approximately the same time that First Placement was initiated, Georgia began recommending that CPS provide more in-home services to improve family safety. These services, though more costly, would provide direct service in the child's environment. The DFCS staff support in-home services, but were concerned that budget cuts would limit the availability of the services. There were only two providers for in-home services. Given the rural nature of Brooks County, many of the providers were located at a distance from the area and were simply not available for quick-turnaround issues. DFCS was working with the Social Work Department of Valdosta State University to develop a larger pool of local service providers.
Caseworkers reported that some of the benefits of increased private contracting are improved timeliness of services and assessments. Private contractors also provide another perspective on the family. Workers felt that families are more open with private contractors than with DFCS staff, even though DFCS has a positive reputation in the community. Consequently, the use of private contractors increases the amount of information available about families.