Child protection advocates rallied at the Capitol on Tuesday to urge lawmakers to pass legislation to fix the state’s troubled child welfare agency.
Several dozen bills have been filed so far this legislative session to address the issues that plague Child Protective Services and the foster care system housed within the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services. Some fixes would include reducing caseworkers’ turnover rate, increasing visitations of children who are reported abused, and offering better protection.
Advocacy groups like the Texas Association for the Protection of Children, which coordinated Tuesday’s event, said that this is the first time they have seen this much attention given to CPS and foster care. They are hopeful that laws passed this year will be a good starting point to launch major reforms in the future.
Several issues and events — including child abuse deaths, a federal ruling that deemed part of the state’s foster care system unconstitutional, and caseworkers leaving in droves — have created a sense of urgency in the legislature to fix the child welfare system, said Madeline McClure, head of the child protection association.
“It’s a perfect storm,” she said.
Late last year, Sen. Charles Schwertner, R-Georgetown, filed a sweeping bill that would require, among other things, all children to receive medical examination within three days of entering care and the creation of a foster care oversight and quality assurance unit to monitor the performance of all providers who serve foster children and families.
On Monday, State Rep. Cindy Burkett, R-Sunnyvale, filed a sweeping bill — the Child Protection Act — in the House that she said would strengthen early intervention, implement strategies to retain workforce, and strengthen the kinship program that places foster children with their family members.
“The end goal is to make the most vulnerable in our population safer. The first and foremost way to accomplish that is with prevention and early intervention techniques,” Burkett said during Tuesday’s event.
McClure said that the biggest hurdle will be making sure the legislature injects enough state funding to implement the changes. With the tight budget cycle, it’s unclear how much will go toward child welfare.
Late last year, lawmakers gave Family and Protective Services $150 million in emergency funding to hire 829 employees — including 550 caseworkers and investigators — as well as to fund a $12,000 raise to staffers to keep them from quitting.
Hank Whitman, commissioner of the child welfare agency, said Tuesday that they are asking for more money for 2018 and 2019 — the Senate’s budget proposal increases the agency’s general revenue by 13.5 percent over 2016-2017 — to build on the progress that they’re already making.
“The budget is tight and they’re many competing priorities — we realize that. But we all know that an investment in our children is an investment in our future,” Whitman said.