VIEWPOINTS: Texas should follow — not fight — mandates to improve CPS

A child needs much more than shelter, food and clothing to establish a healthy life. Children need a good education, positive experiences, life skills and a nurturing environment to have a chance at becoming productive adults. Most children in Texas get what they need, but the majority of children in the state’s Child Protective Services system do not.

The mission of CPS is to protect children from abuse, neglect and exploitation. But the system is broken and has been for too long. Texas needs dramatic reform — and it’s time for state leaders to step up and make it happen.

Though it is a necessary safety net for children who need protection, a federal judge ruled four years ago that CPS causes more harm to children in a system where studies show children are repeatedly abused.

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Last week, the same federal judge — U.S. District Judge Janis Graham Jack of Corpus Christi — ruled that the Texas foster care system remains broken and continues to place children at risk. She ordered Texas officials to adopt almost 100 changes, including reduced workloads for caseworkers, a ban on children sleeping in state offices and steps to better monitor and reduce sexual abuse, the American-Statesman’s Chuck Lindell reported.

It’s embarrassing that in a state led by lawmakers who pride themselves for holding a belief that all life is sacred, more urgent efforts aren’t being made to give Texas’ most fragile children a system that provides a haven respectful of their lives.

As expected, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton quickly pounced on Jack’s order, calling it “incomplete and impractical” with “unrealistic mandates.” We disagree.

The welfare of the children under the state’s watch depends on those mandates and as such, the state should ensure each directive is carried out. Texas should tap its healthy $10 billion so-called rainy day fund to make it happen.

But Texas must do more than just hire more people and increase the salaries of some employees, as state officials did in 2016. Those steps helped decrease caseloads and increase visits with some children in the system. But the state needs to do more to resolve the issues that expose so many foster kids to danger.

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Yet, records show a continued unwillingness by CPS officials to address critical faults in the system.

Though the department has provided two court-appointed monitors with a variety of requested information, the monitors report that department officials flatly refused to discuss — much less act upon — several issues, such as the department’s disorganized record-keeping system and its failure to identify children who have been sexually abused while in foster care.

Those items now appear as part of the state’s long required to-do list.

Jack has ordered caseworkers to immediately begin monthly meetings with foster children without their foster family or caregiver present. The requirement comes after records show that “former foster children testified at trial that they were unable to report abuse to a caseworker because the abuser — often the caregiver — was present during caseworker visits.”

Meanwhile, state officials are being required to create within the next 30 days a plan to address missing medical and mental health records for foster children. Within four months, state officials must also develop a plan for an integrated computer system containing complete records for each foster child, including medical and mental health history, education and court records. Poor record-keeping has contributed to sexual and physical abuse, undiagnosed developmental disorders and other problems, Jack said.

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State officials may not like Jack’s ruling and her timeline to turn the department around, but it is hard to be sympathetic when, as the federal judge pointed out, Texas has ignored 20 years of evidence pointing to the failings of the state’s foster care system.

Brandon Logan with the Texas Public Policy Foundation, a conservative think tank, said the ruling undermined last year’s legislative efforts that had “set Texas on the right path.”

That’s only true if state leaders refuse or aren’t brave enough to take the necessary steps to build on those small successes. Jack’s mandates are a clear road map for reform.

Following the mandates — instead of putting up costly fights — is the right move. And it’s a wise investment for Texas.

Consider that for every young person who ages out of foster care at the age of 18, taxpayers and communities pay $300,000 in social costs like public assistance, incarceration and lost wages to a community over that person’s lifetime, according to a study by the Annie E. Casey Foundation, a child advocacy group. In 2014 alone, more than 1,450 young adults aged out of the system in Texas.

With a healthy rainy day fund, Texas has no excuse to continue tolerating a broken system that can do more harm to a child who desperately needs our protection. Children who come to CPS need more than a roof over their heads; they need to be able to trust that Texas will help and keep them safe.

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