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Texas Tries (Again) to Reboot Its Troubled Child Welfare System

Child advocates say the state is taking encouraging first steps in turning around an underfunded and overburdened agency -- but it has a long way to go.

Texas What We Are Watching
Texas Gov. Greg Abbott
(AP/Stephen Spillman)
Texas Gov. Greg Abbott recently signed a package of bills aimed at reforming the state's broken foster care system. Since he took office in 2015, achieving zero child fatalities in the system has been a major priority of his administration.

The changes, which seek to retain effective caseworkers, keep children in their communities and place children with relatives when they have to be separated from their parents, come after years of critical audits, newspaper investigations and high-profile tragedies involving children in the state's care.

“It's an important [first] step," says Andy Homer, director of public affairs with Texas CASA, a group representing court-appointed advocates for children in foster care. But, he adds, "this is not the end of the process. We need to be realistic about how long this is going to take.”

In January, Abbott called attention to Child Protective Services (CPS) in his State of the State address, asking lawmakers to approve structural reforms and increase funding. “You will cast thousands of votes this session," he said. "Few will involve life or death decisions. Your vote on CPS is one of them. [...] If ever we’ve had an emergency item, this is it.”

The problems plaguing CPS are manifold. To start, low pay and morale among front-line workers has led to high turnover and a shortage of caseworkers. The state has also struggled to find enough slots in residential treatment centers for psychologically damaged and developmentally delayed children, resulting in many foster kids sleeping at CPS offices and in hotels while they await permanent placement. As a result, a federal district court judge ruled in 2015 that the long-term foster care system in Texas was unconstitutional because it violated children’s 14th Amendment to be safe from harm while in state custody.

Last winter, The Dallas Morning News reviewed Abbott’s previous efforts to turn around CPS and found the agency to be “in a state of perpetual crisis under his watch and, by nearly every metric, has gotten worse at protecting children.” More children died of maltreatment in 2016 than in 2015, the paper noted. High-profile child fatalities, such as a runaway foster kidwho was hit by a car in Houston, generated new pressure on the governor and his Republican counterparts in the legislature to take action.

That's where the latest package of bills comes into play. Abbott signed four bills on the last day of the 2017 legislative session that tweak the system. The first bill -- in recognition that children tend to fare better if they get placed with relatives -- mandates that the state pay $350 a month to low-income families caring for abused and neglected children who are related to them. A second bill turns the Department of Family and Protective Services into a standalone agency, which is meant to address complaints that CPS had been buried in the larger bureaucracy of the state Health and Human Services Commission. Another bill changes the way the courts and child welfare system interact, making it harder for the courts to remove a child from his or her parents unless there are allegations of violence or abuse. Finally, the fourth bill expands the role of nonprofits by assigning them case management duties in eight regions of the state.

The legislative package is only the most recent in a series of efforts to provide support to the child welfare system. In December, the legislature set aside $140 million in emergency funds to add 800 more child caseworkers and increase their pay. Earlier in this year’s session, the legislature appropriated money to make permanent the additional staffing and higher salaries.

“All the attention and the work around trying to address these issues is really positive,” says Rricha Mathur, a senior policy adviser for First Focus, a national advocacy group that specializes in policies affecting children and families. Mathur notes that the state made it easier for foster youth aging out of the system to access government-issued documentation, such as their social security number, which removes a common barrier to enrolling in college.

Mathur and other advocates have applauded the legislative changes passed this spring, but they do question the bill that enables nonprofit contractors to handle case management in some parts of the state. The idea of privatizing such a key function has invited criticism that financial incentives could be tied to the wrong performance measures. Even more worrisome, a 2015 Buzzfeed article about for-profit foster care companies found examples where private contractors did not properly screen or monitor foster parents, leading to instances of abuse and neglect.

While the situation in Texas will be slightly different because the contractors are nonprofits, Mathur says, “I do worry that this creates more decentralization from the state and makes it harder to hold people accountable for adverse outcomes.”

Nonetheless, the approach is already being piloted in the Fort Worth metro area, and the results are encouraging. State data suggest that it has reduced the number of times children moved from home to home, increased the number of foster homes, especially in rural areas, and resulted in more placements that were within 50 miles of the child’s home.

One advocacy group that supported the privatization approach was Texas CASA. “There’s certainly no shortage of problems in the current system,” says Sarah Crockett, the group’s public policy coordinator, “and we were supportive of trying a radical change and seeing how it works.”

J.B. Wogan is a Governing staff writer.
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