More money, agency coordination among proposed fixes for foster care

Texas cannot reduce the number of abused children in foster care — or provide for those with medical and psychiatric needs — without better pay for caseworkers, improved data on how abuse cases are handled and coordinated health care, state officials told Texas senators Wednesday.

John Specia, outgoing commissioner of the Department of Family and Protective Services, said his agency is working to address major cracks in Child Protective Services’ foster care system, which also faces a $36 million shortfall in its 2015-16 budget.

“We have too many preventable child fatalities. Every failure hurts,” Specia told the Senate Committee on Health and Human Services. “CPS interventions must be precise. The child protection system is bigger than DFPS.”

The committee began work Wednesday on identifying problems, and potential solutions, in a beleaguered child-protection system that is grappling with rising child abuse deaths, backlogged investigations and high turnover rates for caseworkers.

The American-Statesman has reported that 171 children died of abuse and neglect in 2015, up from 151 in 2014, as investigators missed red flags and failed to analyze critical data during abuse investigations.

Acknowledging that more needed to be done, Specia and other policy experts suggested that additional day care, parenting classes and drug-prevention programs needed to be established in communities. They also said government agencies, including the health and education departments, should share information on abused children and collect police data to identify areas where abusive households tend to cluster so they could be targeted with social services.

Several senators suggested pumping more state money into the system to keep more caseworkers on the job by increasing their pay. The starting annual salary for a Child Protective Services caseworker is $32,000, and 22 percent of caseworkers quit during their first year at the protection agency in 2015.

But state Sen. Charles Perry, R-Lubbock, said there is “plenty of money in the system.”

“We’re just not spending it right,” he said.

Wednesday’s Capitol hearing also addressed the growing number of foster children who have medical and psychological needs.

About 5,900 of the state’s 29,000 foster care children have issues, including autism, bipolar disorder, diabetes and serious behavioral health problems. Those children are in and out of foster homes an average of 5.7 times in a lifetime — twice as often as the average foster child — and stay longer in the foster system and are more likely to be sent to residential treatment centers, John Stephen, a consultant hired by the state to analyze Child Protective Services, told the committee.

Stephen said the state needs to clearly define what health issues are considered high need; improve coordination between caregivers and child placement agencies; give caseworkers more time and data to help manage child health issues; offer more psychiatric therapy services in foster homes; and improve access to and information about Medicaid services.

Despite the need for improvement, Stephen said, the state is moving in the right direction. “You have to be patient,” he said.

Wednesday’s discussion came as 17-year-old Meechiael Criner, a former foster care child who had reportedly suffered from mental illness, faces charges in the slaying of University of Texas student Haruka Weiser this month.

Sen. José Rodríguez, D-El Paso, questioned Specia on whether the foster care system failed to address Criner’s illness. Specia declined to comment, citing confidentiality reasons.

Specia is slated to leave his post May 1. Henry “Hank” Whitman, the former head of the Texas Rangers law enforcement agency, will lead the family protection agency.

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