Bayou City

Will the Latest Foster Care Reforms in Texas Actually Solve the Crisis?

Nine months after a federal judge in December 2015 ruled that Texas's foster care system was failing thousands of the state's most vulnerable kids, the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services issued a progress report that could more aptly be called a lack-of-progress report: Texas was still failing thousands of the most at-risk kids.

This past October, DFPS released data showing that, on any given day in Texas, Child Protective Services caseworkers were failing to check on nearly 1,000 of the state's highest-priority kids, who face immediate threats of sexual or physical abuse. Another 1,800 of those kids were checked on — but not within the required 24-hour time frame required by law. Governor Greg Abbott was furious — especially after learning that, because of the shortage of foster homes, many kids were also having to sleep in CPS offices. In fact, one such foster teen sleeping at a Houston office ran away from the office earlier this year and was hit by a car and killed.

Abbott — who had previously spent years and millions of state dollars opposing a lawsuit that had accused Texas of indifference to this very problem — apparently decided that this October report was where he would draw the line, demanding emergency foster care reform. (Although it's also worth noting that he and Attorney General Ken Paxton are still fighting that lawsuit.)

Enter: four bills aimed at overhauling Texas foster care and CPS, which Abbott signed during a press conference Wednesday. Abbott is so confident in the changes that, perhaps predictably, he said he thinks the lawsuit can be dismissed now.

"With this landmark legislation, with the direction and pathway we're now on, I expect the Texas Child Protective Services and the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services to strive for, achieve and to accomplish No. 1 ranking status in the United States of America as it concerns taking care of our children," Abbott said.

The most prominent bill is Senate Bill 11, which creates a "community-care model," essentially allowing the state to contract with nonprofit organizations and privatize the work that CPS caseworkers do now. The model and new care providers won't replace CPS, but are expected to bolster it so that thousands of kids stop falling through the cracks because of CPS staffing shortages. Other bills make DFPS a standalone agency disconnected from the Texas Health and Human Services Commission; allocate $350 a month to relatives of abused and neglected kids who live with them; and change how CPS cooperates with courts.

But will these changes actually solve Texas's foster-care crisis, let alone make the system the best in the country?

"There's a tendency to think that this [legislation] is a magic bullet that will solve everything," said Miriam Nisenbaum, executive director of the National Association of Social Workers Texas chapter. "That's simply not true."

The first concern, Nisenbaum said, is whether the state can recruit enough willing nonprofits or other local government entities who are up to the task to help CPS. Then, Nisenbaum said, there needs to be complete confidence that DFPS will adequately evaluate and monitor these contractors to make sure they are providing the kids high standards of care. These details, she said, have yet to be fully worked out and discussed.

"Any time you contract out any essential health and human services to other entities, what must be in place is a robust and accountable monitoring function for evaluating the effectiveness of the provider," she said. "I think the premise of having such a pressing and huge and onerous problem with foster care and trying to involve the community and other partners to be part of the solution, theoretically, is not a bad idea. But as with any initiative like this, the question is not so much what, it's how?"

Emily Freeborn, staff attorney with Children at Risk, said she is less concerned about whether the state can find enough community providers but more concerned about what happens when those providers decide to cut the contract.

Following the October 2016 report, the state allocated more funding to CPS so it could pay its caseworkers better, providing an incentive for them to stay on board. Still, advocates have remained concerned that the new contracted community providers will poach CPS caseworkers — with the possibility of running into yet more staffing shortages if those providers at some point decide to drop the foster-kid casework responsibilities.

"I don't think [the legislation] is addressing the concerns in the [court] order fast enough," Freeborn said. "This privatization method is going to take multiple years to fully implement. There's potential issues that can compromise the implementation: If [providers] can pull out with a 90-day notice to the state, what kind of complications will that create and how will that impact children? If you lose all your caseworkers to these private organizations and one pulls out, how do you rebuild that staff in order to ensure that those children receive a continuum of care?"

A report released this week by DFPS shows that the state's increase in CPS staff funding and its recruitment of more caseworkers (albeit by lowering qualification standards) have led to far fewer failures in the system. Now, 89 percent of the most at-risk kids are being checked on within 24 hours — nearly a 15 percent increase since January.

Still, as Freeborn noted, the legislative changes expected to eliminate these shortages even more will not take full effect for at least two more years. In the meantime, how many more kids will fall through the cracks?

"Texas has studied this problem since the '90s, and yet it's taken a court to put a metaphorical gun to Texas's head to actually move on this problem," said Jamey Caruthers, senior staff attorney with Children at Risk. "And every year and every day that passes, there are more and more children coming out of the system far worse off than they came into the system...It's a shame that it's taken this long."
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Meagan Flynn is a staff writer at the Houston Press who, despite covering criminal justice and other political squabbles in Harris County, drinks only one small cup of coffee per day.
Contact: Meagan Flynn