“All the Internet access and gizmos in the world can't take the place of a caseworker who knows your name,” we warned in 2006, when Gov. Mitch Daniels' administration announced its ill-considered plan to “modernize” the state's welfare system.
The $1.3 billion, 10-year contract to administer welfare services created heartaches for the most vulnerable Hoosiers before it was canceled after two years. Vital services to the poor, to seniors and to people with disabilities were interrupted or lost when caseworkers were largely replaced by call-center operators. And more than a decade later, legal battles related to the botched project drag on.
Now, the state is preparing to overhaul its child care support system, pledging improvements and efficiencies in language eerily reminiscent of the 2006 fiasco. The changes, made with no public discussion, already have cost Early Childhood Alliance a $3.8 million contract and Brightpoint a $1.6 million contract. Out-of-state companies will pick up the jobs now done by local nonprofits.
But it is the effect of the changes on Indiana infants, toddlers and young children in child care that is the greatest concern. Will safety, access and quality be disrupted by a new system that relies less on trusted professionals and more on internet access?
Andrenette Montgomery, director of All God's Children Daycare Center in Fort Wayne, believes the changes threaten the support she has relied on to improve safety and learning at her center. Currently, that comes through Early Childhood Alliance, which holds the four-year contract to provide training and assistance to area providers. But the agreement expires Sept. 30 and the alliance, the only bidder, was not awarded a new contract.
“My coaches are awesome,” Montgomery said in an interview. “They contact me throughout the year. When they come in to visit, they go over my paperwork. They sit down in the classroom to observe and make recommendations.”
At a meeting Tuesday regarding the child care changes, Montgomery asked Nicole Norvell, director of the Family and Social Services Administration's Office of Early Childhood and Out of School Learning, what would happen to the coaching program. Norvell said a goal of the redesign was that “early education providers be the drivers of what happens in this system.”
“In this current system, we've got this system of checklists and things we are asking you to participate in and go through to get to the next step. ... But what we know about human behavior is that we change when we want to change,” Norvell said. “What we're hoping in this new system is that you are going to tell us what you need, and we're going to come and provide that to you.”
Montgomery wasn't satisfied with the response.
“They say if you need help, to call,” she said after the meeting. “I want to get better, so I will call. But I worry about the (child care providers) who won't. If you give some people the opportunity to drag their feet, they will. And if you don't have safety first, early education doesn't matter.”
Questioned about the contract award Tuesday night, Norvell said she couldn't comment “because of the legal process,” but noted the state's bid-scoring documents were available for inspection. But with no other bidder, it's baffling why Early Childhood Alliance, which has served the region well in child care resource and referral services, was left out.
“It's not like we were competing with anyone,” said Madeleine Baker, chief executive officer of Early Childhood Alliance. “We just need an explanation.”
The state owes Early Childhood Alliance an explanation. It was the alliance, working with early-learning professionals and child providers in this area, that gave the Family and Social Services Administration the trademarked Paths to Quality child care rating system in 2008. Parents across Indiana recognize the program developed here as a trusted tool in finding the best care for their children.
As the region's anti-poverty agency, Brightpoint administers numerous programs to help struggling families get on their feet. One of those is the federal Child Care Development Fund voucher program, which helps families under 127% of the federal poverty line afford quality child care. Parents must be working, in school or enrolled in job training.
Brightpoint now handles vouchers for all of northeast Indiana, as well as for St. Joseph, LaPorte and Elkhart counties. In the contract process this year, the state allowed vendors to bid by county instead of by region. When the contracts were awarded, the most populous counties outside of Marion County all went to Automated Health Systems, a Pittsburgh-based company. Brightpoint was left to serve the rural northern Indiana counties, but not Fort Wayne and Allen County. Its contract drops from $1.6 million a year to $126,000.
The changes the state promises to make in voucher application procedures might well ease the process for some parents, but could also create confusion for the 8,000 families Brightpoint will no longer serve. Those families might also miss out on Brightpoint's other services, including utility and housing assistance, financial education and Head Start.
As with the child care resource contract, it's tough to figure out the reasoning here. Why reject a local nonprofit skilled in serving low-income families in favor of an out-of-state vendor? Who or what was driving the changes?
We would never suggest improvements aren't needed in Indiana's child care system, but the data-driven approach the state used in revamping departments such as the Bureau of Motor Vehicles doesn't always work when it comes to human services. As the IBM fiasco proved, agencies that serve vulnerable populations need a guiding touch that internet or call-center responses can't provide. Let's not repeat the cruel and costly mistakes of the welfare modernization.