Plans for foster-youth program switch stirs Placer County controversy

San Jose’s Unity Care moves to halt service transfer to Placer Office of Education
By: Gus Thomson, Journal Staff Writer
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A program that is now helping 230 foster youths in Placer County make the transition into the adult world is moving toward changing contractors in midstream.

The switch of what has been a $202,000 annual contract to the Placer County Office of Education has resulted in the current contractor - Unity Care of San Jose - protesting the proposal and asking the Board of Supervisors to take a closer look.

The county’s Children’s System of Care let Unity Care know in November that it was turning the Independent Living Program over to the Office of the Education. The move is expected to take place starting in July. The program provides independent-living-skills training and assistance to foster youths from 15 years 6 months to 18, and can be continued up to age 21.

Several speakers used a recent Board of Supervisors meeting as a sounding board for questions and objections to the move, which comes halfway through a two-year agreement between Unity Care and the county. The contract specifies it can be terminated without cause at any time within 30 days.

Richard Knecht, Children’s System of Care client services director, said the decision to move forward on a new agreement with the Auburn-based Office of Education is not based on any performance problems since Unity Care was awarded the contract in 2009.

“There is no unhappiness or dissatisfaction on our part with the provider,” Knecht said. “Our motivation is purely to expand and enhance services.”

Andre Chapman, Unity Care CEO, led a contingent of speakers favoring the firm’s attempt to continue the pact with the county for at least another year - to complete the two-year agreement. The agreement followed a previous two-year contract. Unity Care was initially awarded a contract over two other bidders - the county education office and Auburn’s Whole Person Learning.

Chapman called the current plan for a contract change “a travesty” that is going to have a negative impact on children who “are the most resilient but oftentimes the most voiceless.”

“We’ve been providing services at a very high level and quality in this community and have a great relationship with the county Department of Social Services (Health and Human Services),” Chapman said.

Chapman added that he seriously questions the absence of a new bidding process and what he considers the absence of foster children expressing opinions on the process.

Several former and current foster youths told the board that they wanted the program to stay as it is. They expressed concerns that a service that emphasized one-on-one assistance would be replaced with workshops. While staff members were not allowed under county rules to address concerns at the April 9 meeting, Knecht said in an interview this past week that “misinformation” includes the presumption that the system is going to be different after the changeover.

“The goal is to enhance existing services so the model in the future will be an enhancement,” Knecht said. “The partnership with the Office of Education gives accessibility to services that will best serve foster youth. There is a natural connection between the educational mandates and the county office of education service.”

Tabaitha Woodworth said that her entire life has been one of instability, with no chance to voice her opinion.

“The program is perfect,” Woodworth said. “Anything other than that feels hectic and uncomfortable.”

Jake Dole, a former foster youth, called on the county not to “fire” Unity Care staff. According to the current contract, the program employs two case managers at a salary totaling $74,000 annually, a program manager at $39,000 a year and a part-time program director at $8,240 a year. The state-mandated program’s contract also pays $30,511 in benefits.

“I have had the most respect and honor I’ve ever had in my life,” Dole said.

The dispute between the county and Unity Care had been simmering since November, when Children’s System of Care program manager Tom Lind informed the contractor that plans were to “integrate” the Independent Living Program into existing ones within the county that have “well-developed education and job-readiness programming.”

Dr. Richard Burton, Health and Human Services Department director, reinforced that contention in December with a letter to Chapman. Burton said it was his call to make the change, understanding that “that this is a decision that could have downside economic consequences (for Unity Care).”

“It’s not a bad decision for the young persons who will benefit from it,” Burton said. He added that the decision was not meant to cast a negative light on Unity Care, which had shown positive results. Instead, it “closes long-standing referral and information gaps.”

Burton said that the county could have terminated the contract within 30 days but instead gave Unity Care a six-month time-frame before switching providers. He added that he has been advised by county legal advisors that no competitive bidding process is needed because the education office is another local-government entity.

Shane Libby, a Unity Care program manager who would lose her job in Placer County, asked for reconsideration.

“It’s something that is invaluable and has proven very effective in this county,” Libby said. “We implore you to not decimate what we have here. If we go backward, that’s not good for anyone.”

On the recommendation of Supervisor Kirk Uhler, whose wife, Tami, is assistant director of Child Support Services, and Supervisor Jim Holmes, the board asked staff to put the topic on the agenda for a future meeting.

“I for one would like the opportunity to actually have a conversation about it,” Uhler said.