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Texas’ Foster Care System Has Been In Shambles For Years. Here’s How Lawmakers Want To Fix It.

Texas lawmakers have filed more than 100 bills aimed at improving the state’s long-troubled Department of Family and Protective Services, which cares for the state’s most vulnerable children.

DFPS has struggled for years to care for kids in state custody who have been removed from their parents’ homes. The agency routinely can’t find enough space with foster families, childrens’ relatives or licensed centers for all of the kids for which it cares. Caseworkers have left in droves. The lengthy list of problems have been documented in a long-running federal lawsuit against the state. The judge in that suit found caseworkers were stretched thin, residential facilities housing kids were not in compliance with safety standards and the agency was not tracking child-on-child abuse, and for years has demanded improvements. Nearly 20,000 kids are in the state’s conservatorship.

The governor, the lieutenant governor and the speaker of the House all have significant influence over what legislation gets passed in any given legislative session. Yet as of early March, none have indicated that fixing the state’s foster care system will be a priority for the session that ends May 29. That lack of support means proposed changes will be competing against other pressing issues for lawmakers’ attention — and state dollars.

“Everyone says … ‘I’m very concerned about kids in foster care and all the bad things that happen, but don’t ask me what to do about it. And don’t ask me to take away my funding priorities to pay for that,’” said state Rep. Gene Wu, a Houston Democrat and an attorney who represents parents battling Child Protective Services cases. “They won’t ever say that publicly. But that’s what is going through (legislative) members’ minds.”

For the 2022 and 2023 state budget cycle, DFPS was allocated $4.58 billion. For the two-year budget that lawmakers are writing for 2024 and 2025, that could go to $4.89 billion. So far, both the House and Senate are proposing giving $300 million of a state budget surplus to DFPS. As of early March, a significant chunk of that additional money is proposed to increase pay for foster care providers that house and support many kids in facilities. Lawmakers are also looking to fund an expansion of what’s called community-based care, which outsources part of Child Protective Services’ duties to a local third party.

Lawmakers have also put forth bills that would pay relatives who take in kids more money. Currently, foster parents who are trained and licensed to care for kids in the system get paid more money for doing so than the relatives who can take the kids in without any training. Legislators are also considering making college tuition free for foster youth and requiring Child Protective Services to tell birth parents their rights during ongoing child abuse investigations.

Expanding community-based care

The House and Senate have set aside $128.1 million in their preliminary budgets to expand community-based care, a model adopted in 2017 that aims to keep foster children closer to their homes.

Under that model, DFPS outsources agency responsibilities to specific regions of the state. That includes finding relatives to stay with or foster homes for kids in the state’s care. It also includes tapping third parties to run facilities where several children stay at any given time.

In the six years since Texas first rolled out community-based care, just four DFPS districts had adopted the model by February: the Panhandle, Hill Country, an area anchored by Fort Worth and a region that includes Wichita Falls and Abilene. Those areas are collectively responsible for 24% of children in the state’s care. Each of those regions is now in the second stage of the program’s rollout, which broadens the third-party contractor’s role to handle overall case management, oversee children staying with relatives and prepare families for kids to return to the custody of the birth parents or legal guardians.

DFPS Commissioner Stephanie Muth told lawmakers at a Senate Finance Committee meeting Feb. 10 that the agency will likely require fewer in-house caseworkers. That, in turn, will require more of an internal focus on managing contracts and less on staffers managing cases.

Both the House and Senate are looking to expand community-based care into new regions. In February, contracts were signed in the Piney Woods and a portion of North Texas.

Changing how foster care providers are paid

Lawmakers could also update how the state pays operators of facilities that house and provide services for multiple foster care kids.

For each day of care, DFPS currently pays those providers a rate that is based on the child’s assessed “level of care.” There are five levels of care: basic, moderate, specialized, intense and intense plus. The majority of foster care children fall under the basic and moderate levels of care. But when a child has more complex needs — like intensive mental health services for those at risk of hospitalization and support for older youth about to age out of care — the state pays the provider a higher rate.

A consulting group hired by the state found current foster care rates are based on data that is more than a decade old and do not “realistically reflect staff time and effort associated with providing care.” Without adequate funds, providers are limited in the resources they can offer to foster care kids.

The House and Senate are proposing the rates go up and have each earmarked $100 million over two years to fund the increases. DFPS plans to propose new rates to lawmakers in the coming weeks.

Child welfare experts have recommended moving away from tying rates to the assessed levels of care.

“The needs of children fluctuate, which means payments can fluctuate,” Jamie McCormick, vice president of public affairs at the Texas Alliance Of Child And Family Services, wrote in a statement. “This fluctuation creates fiscal instability. Worse, the leveling system can disrupt treatment for the child or limit their ability to sustain progress.”

If approved by the Legislature, the new system would identify different services a child needs and rates would be tied to the particular foster care settings that could provide those services.

Increasing payments to relatives who take in kids in state care

After they’ve been removed from their homes, children experience less trauma when they are in the care of relatives or close family friends. But when those people step up to help, something DFPS dubs “kinship care,” they receive far less compensation than foster parents who open their home to temporarily care for children they don’t know. Kinship caregivers do not have to be licensed or go through training. They receive $12.67 per day. Foster parents must be licensed and complete training. They receive at least $27.07 per day.

Kinship caregivers can qualify for higher payments if they go through the training program. Completing the training means they are considered “verified” by the agency.

But some lawmakers want to end that verification requirement so that extended family members — like grandparents — can step up to care for kids who have been taken from their parents without struggling to make ends meet.

“Their retirement sometimes barely is enough to cover their own expenses, much less the expenses of a growing child. Think about the cost of diapers, the cost of food, the cost of formula,” said state Sen. José Menéndez, D-San Antonio, who has authored Senate Bill 107.

State Rep. Vikki Goodwin, D-Austin, filed an identical bill, House Bill 304. Those proposals have the backing of key child welfare groups, such as TexProtects, Texas Alliance of Child and Family Services and Texans Care for Children.

The Legislature last increased payments for relatives to the current rate in 2017, but advocates like Kerrie Judice, a child protection policy manager at TexProtects, say the increase wasn’t enough.

“We want to make sure that [kinship caregivers] are actually adequately supported,” Judice said. “We want to see that 50% tariff removed.”

Requiring notification of rights in child abuse investigations

Parents under investigation for child abuse have to make decisions that will determine whether they keep or lose their children. But most of these parents do not have legal help and are unaware of their rights. State Rep. James Frank, R-Wichita Falls, is trying to change that by increasing due process protections for parents involved in Child Protective Services cases.

House Bill 730 would require caseworkers to notify parents of their rights. For example, they can decline to share medical records or submit to drug tests and they have the right to speak with an attorney. If parents refuse to be interviewed or let caseworkers in their homes, the bill would also require DFPS to show probable cause, which requires more evidence than the current standard, to get a court order.

“There is a real lack of due process in the CPS arena, I believe. And I think a lot of my colleagues agree,” said Frank, the chair of the Texas House Human Services Committee. “A parent should understand what is at risk and that we’re doing an investigation and that they have rights.”

Rep. Jacey Jetton, R-Richmond, also wants to see changes in how CPS investigations take off. DFPS finds evidence of abuse in only 22% of investigation, according to the agency. Many investigations start with anonymous reports of abuse or neglect. Jetton’s House Bill 1667, would end anonymous reporting.

As part of the bill, teachers, health care professionals and day-care employees could redirect families determined to have a “low risk of abuse” to community-based services, rather than calling CPS.

“House Bill 1667 will allow families to receive access to these services without the added stress of interaction with CPS,” Jetton said in a statement. “It will also help improve the efficiency of investigations into reports of suspected child abuse and neglect by freeing CPS to prioritize children in danger of harm.”

Disclosure: Texans Care for Children and TexProtects have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune’s journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

This story originally appeared on the Texas Tribune. To read this article in its original format, click here.


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