A state plan to replace Utah Foster Care, a nonprofit created 21 years ago by the Legislature, is drawing fire from the agency, foster families and some legislators who believe an unfair bidding process led to a bad decision.

“So we filed a formal protest,” said Rob Gerlach, a foster parent and board chairman for the group that says it otherwise may be forced to disband when its five-year contract ends July 1.

Two of the three state officials who evaluated bids gave scores that would have renewed Utah Foster Care’s contract, supporters say. But a third evaluator gave it scores that were just low enough to swing the contract to a competitor, The Adoption Exchange, based in Colorado, which won by a score of 82.7 to 81.3.

Supporters complain that a budget proposed by Utah Foster Care was $800,000 a year cheaper but the savings apparently were not considered. They also say the system by design gives Utah Foster Care no credit for success over 20 years compared to a program that does not yet exist.

With the close scoring, “I think you should go with the functioning group with a good track record rather than one from out of state that’s not set up yet,” said Sen. Allen Christensen, R-North Ogden, a foster care advocate. “I’m not really happy about it.”

But Diane Moore, director of the Utah Division of Child and Family Services, said the state and procurement officers are merely following the law. “This is not any sort of reduced investment or commitment to our foster care community. This is a comparable and continuing investment, and we absolutely just want to support them and the kids they serve," Moore said.

The Adoption Exchange did not immediately respond to phone calls seeking comment. Gerlach with Utah Foster Care said he has “not a single negative word” about The Adoption Exchange and “they've been a wonderful collaborator” in helping to adopt children in the foster system, but said they have not provided the wider services that his agency does.

Utah Foster Care was organized by the Legislature in 1999 after a lawsuit claimed the foster system was not protecting children.

“It was determined at the time that the system did not provide adequate training, screening and certainly didn’t provide adequate continuing support for foster families,” Gerlach said. “So that’s why the Legislature created us.”

Foster families and some lawmakers say the nonprofit has performed well.

“They deal with a lot of things. They recruit foster parents. They help train them. They work with unification [with biological families], which is under our law the first goal," Rep. Patrice Arent, D-Millcreek, said. "They fundraise for a lot of things that we couldn’t afford through the state budget, so kids can have piano lessons and go to camp and have holiday gifts.”

Doug Smeath, a foster parent, applauds the training and help he received from the nonprofit. “They have made a pretty complicated and tricky system as easy to navigate as possible.”

He tells how in his first meeting with a recruiter, he was shown how tough being a foster parent could be but at the same time was helped to believe he could accomplish it. “I couldn’t believe how I ended that meeting: scared and confident at the same time. We just looked at each other, and we’re like, ‘OK, we can do this.'”

Mike Lee, another foster parent, was upset enough about the news that Utah Foster Care was losing its contract that he used state open record laws to obtain bid records.

He’s the one who found that two of three evaluators gave their top scores to Utah Foster Care. “This allows one outlier score from one evaluator to significantly impact the final score. Unfortunately, that appears to be what happened in this case,” he wrote in an email.

He also said documents showed both bidders were asked to submit proposed budgets. The one from Utah Foster Care was $800,000 cheaper. “Worse, this was not even considered in the evaluation process,” Lee said after studying the documents. “The contract was granted only based on the technical scoring, without consideration to budget.”

Moore with DCFS says that’s a bit misleading. She said the state set the amount for the five-year contract, which would be the same no matter who won. She said procurement officers however had bidders submit proposed budgets as part of an exercise.

“That’s completely false,” Gerlach says. “The process required the submission of a budget — not a pie-in-the-sky or theoretical budget, but an actual budget. And the statute requires that cost be evaluated independent from the technical criteria” but says that appears not to have happened.

Moore said nothing about the bidding process this year “was atypical from our perspective. We provided a scope of work about what we needed to procure on behalf of our foster families to ensure that they had the support and that we have an agency out there recruiting and training and helping us retain foster parents.”

Moore said the state respects the right of Utah Foster Care to protest the bidding process as a necessary part of ensuring that it is fair.

“We want to ensure that the process has credibility, that the foster care community and the public have confidence in the process,” she said. “We really have to defer to state procurement to validate that everything was done as it should be. As far as I know, everything was.”

Arent, who is retiring from the Legislature this year, said she’s not so sure. “I have a lot of questions,” she said. “I’ve heard from a lot of families, and I’ve heard very good things about Utah Foster Care. They have such an outstanding reputation in the community that I wonder about this decision.”

Gerlach said he worries that if The Adoption Exchange proceeds and Utah Foster Care vanishes, if problems arise in transition, “the state will have no backup plan. There would be no other resource for foster families or for children in care to provide these same services. That’s scary to me, especially in [coronavirus] times like these when families have had enough disruption.”