Scrambling to find a solution to the problems that plague the state’s child welfare system, the Legislature is one step closer to stripping the state of its responsibilities to provide major foster care services in certain parts of the state.
The Texas House on Thursday tentatively approved Senate Bill 11, filed by Sen. Charles Schwertner, R-Georgetown, which would expand “community-based foster care” to two areas in the state over the next two years. The state would have to transfer foster care case management, including caseworker visits, court-related duties and decision-making on where children live, learn and receive services, to a nonprofit agency or a governmental entity such as a county or municipality.
“We can’t keep doing the same thing and expecting better results,” said Rep. James Frank, R-Wichita Falls, who has proposed a similar bill in the House and helped present SB 11 on Thursday. “It’s a lot easier to manage seven counties than it is 254 counties.”
At least four of the six members of the Austin delegation in the House voted against SB 11 in a voice vote Thursday, expressing concerns that similar plans in such states as Florida and Kansas haven’t worked and that Texas first needs to fund its system adequately.
“I’m just concerned that doing it at this time and in this matter is not something that is well thought out, bearing in mind that we are unconstitutional and we are not giving the resources that we need to the most pressing problem in Texas today,” said Rep. Celia Israel, D-Austin.
Community-based foster care, also called foster care privatization, has been promoted to lawmakers this session as Child Protective Services and the foster care system come under the microscope for child deaths, high turnover and a failure to see endangered children within state-mandated time frames.
A federal judge last year ruled that a major part of the state’s foster care system was unconstitutional and suggested that, in some cases, children were better off before they entered the state’s care.
Gov. Greg Abbott included fixing foster care as one of his four priorities for the Legislature this session. On Friday, the House officially passed SB 11, which will return to Senate for its approval on changes the House made before going to Abbott for his approval.
More oversight of privatization
In committee hearings earlier this year, policy experts testified that nonprofits contracted to provide services might not have interests that jibe with the best interests of foster care children.
The bill attempts to address that concern by allowing governmental entities to contract with the state instead of nonprofits and requiring that the Department of Family and Protective Services, which oversees the state’s foster care system and CPS, create a formal review process for contractors. The bill also requires that contractors develop a plan to avoid conflicts of interest.
Some Democratic members, including Rep. Eddie Rodriguez of Austin, tried to add amendments to SB 11 on Thursday that would have created more oversight and postponed implementation of community-based foster care altogether.
“This bill is supposed to be helping these children, but when we’re privatizing, we really need to take a very close look at what we’re doing here,” Rodriguez said. “What I don’t want to see (is) … taxpayer wasted money and kids not being treated any better.”
Frank dismissed such concerns by touting the outcomes of community-based foster care in the Fort Worth area. Since 2014, the pilot program there, which is run through the nonprofit ACH Child and Family Services, has kept a high number of children in their communities, decreased the number of times children moved from home to home and increased the number of foster homes, particularly in rural areas, according to the state child welfare agency.
However, pilot programs elsewhere have hit some hiccups with timely implementation. One that would affect 30 counties in Northwest Texas has been put on hold because of an investigation into whether a state official had improperly helped her husband’s organization land a substantial contract to provide foster care services there. Problems with properly procuring contrac t s have plagued the state’s health agency, prompting the Legislature this session to propose laws to fix it.
Foster care omnibus
Other provisions of SB 11 include:
• Creating standardized policies for child abuse and neglect investigations.
• Requiring the state to collect and monitor repeated reports of abuse or neglect involving the same child or by the same alleged perpetrator.
• Covering the costs of day care services for foster children.
• Ensuring that the state child welfare agency collects data and creates a plan to address foster home shortages in regions where privatized foster care hasn’t occurred.
• Creating pilot programs in two geographical areas for the privatization of family-based safety services, which help families who have been investigated for abuse.
About 20 amendments were added to SB 11 on Thursday, including one by Rep. Stephanie Klick, R-Fort Worth, that barred all but one vaccination — for tetanus — of children who have just entered foster care. A similar measure was fiercely debated last week during the consideration of another foster care bill filed by Rep. Gene Wu, D-Houston. He asked on Thursday that his fellow members not deny services for children in the state’s care.
“When we put into the law that we are limiting the ability of our agency that is tasked with taking care of a child that is in their custody and they are legally responsible for, we are setting a dangerous precedent,” Wu said.
The same amendment would also require that children who enter the foster system who were physically abused or have a chronic condition are prioritized to receive a medical exam within three business days. The original bill required such screenings for all children who enter foster care within three business days in urban areas and seven business days in rural areas.