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Texas House Bills Lay Out Some Initial Plans to Overhaul CPS

Texas representatives have filed legislation to start an overhaul of the the state’s Child Protective Services, following a crisis that has left thousands of kids at risk.

Facing calls to overhaul the state’s embattled child welfare system, Texas House members have introduced legislation that would make it easier for relatives to adopt at-risk children, eliminate bureaucracy in Child Protective Services and strengthen local foster care services.

“One of our highest priorities this year is providing better protection for children at risk of abuse,” House Speaker Joe Straus said in a statement on the three bills, which were filed Thursday night and Friday morning. “These bills would increase accountability at the state agency tasked with protecting children, provide additional support for kinship placements and expand community-based foster care.” 

Asked about the importance of the legislation, Straus spokesman Jason Embry noted the low bill numbers, which are typically reserved for high-priority legislation. “It is definitely significant, and it is not by accident that those House bills are numbers 4, 5 and 6,” Embry said.

Numbers released by the Department of Family and Protective Services last October painted a dismal picture about the child welfare system. On any given day in the past six months, nearly 1,000 of Texas’ “highest-priority” children — considered by the state to be at immediate risk of physical or sexual abuse — were not checked on even once by CPS investigators. The agency said it faced a $40 million budget shortfall in addition to overwhelming caseloads for its employees, rapid staff turnover and a severe shortage of high-quality foster homes.

Lawmakers have already allocated $150 million to CPS on an emergency basis. DFPS Commissioner Hank Whitman has faced criticism for his budget requests and how the agency has used money from the last session. He said last month that every day, between 400 and 450 “priority-one” kids had not seen a caseworker within 24 hours. Whitman has defended his use of emergency funds on hiring more caseworkers and bringing in law enforcement support to help find missing kids.

State Rep. Richard Peña Raymond, D-Laredo, chairman of the House CPS workgroup, said all three bills garnered broad support from the bipartisan group of 12 legislators. He said that other legislation is likely to come but that HB 4, HB 5 and HB 6 are the “cornerstones” of their recommendations.

House Bill 4, authored by state Rep. Cindy Burkett, R-Sunnyvale, aims to lower financial barriers to kinship care, which places children with relatives or close family friends. Currently, there are just under 12,000 children in kinship care and nearly 30,000 in the foster care system.

Burkett says research shows kinship care has better long-term outcomes for children compared to foster care because it allows kids to remain within their family structure.

“This bill provides children with stability and permanency by placing them with a family member, and in the process, ensures that more children receive the love and care that is so vital to their upbringing. Many of these children have already faced a disturbing ordeal, and taking them away from their family often times exacerbates the trauma,” Burkett said in a statement.

Although foster care families receive a minimum monthly stipend of almost $700 per month, relatives who opt to take in these displaced children only get $1,000 for immediate expenses, in addition to an annual reimbursement of up to $500 per child.

HB 4 proposes changing the initial integration payment for kinship care families – those under 300 percent of the federal poverty level – into a monthly stipend that will be 50 percent of the daily basic care rate for foster care. It also creates another bracket for those between 300 and 500 percent of the federal poverty level, which will give them a one-time integration payment but not monthly support.

House Bill 5, authored by Rep. James Frank, R-Wichita Falls, attempts to cut through bureaucracy and more reliably track children in the system. It makes CPS a standalone agency that reports directly to the governor. Frank said that the emphasis of the proposal is on allowing agencies to swiftly make the hiring and firing decisions they need to operate efficiently.

House Bill 6, also authored by Frank, focuses on establishing strong relations between the state and local community-based foster care, which the bill says has effective accountability standards because it is monitored by community stakeholders and has led to better outcomes for children who are victims of abuse and neglect.

“We run all our foster care out of Austin. Imagine if we ran all our school districts out of Austin. If we ran one big school agency out of Austin, it wouldn’t be very effective, especially when you have literally hundreds, if not thousands of agencies, around the state trying to help,” Frank said.

Those agencies currently have to go to Austin to coordinate, Frank said. The bill would streamline processes for these organizations.

Frank said both bills he authored recognize the need for systematic change.

“We can’t just keep doing the status quo because what we keep doing is putting more money into the same system,” Frank said. “At some point, you need to have the money we’re spending actually have as much of an impact on kids as we can.”

In the Senate, Sen. Charles Schwertner, the Health and Human Services Committee chairman, has filed Senate Bill 11, under which the DFPS would implement a series of broad reforms, including reviewing and retaining abuse and neglect records for longer, and making sure CPS special investigators see residential child-care facilities abuse victims within three days.

The early reviews of the House legislation included positive reactions from advocacy groups in the state.

Katie Olse, executive director of the Texas Alliance of Child and Family Services, was encouraged by the cluster of bills, adding that the organization had not reviewed HB 5.

Olse said HB 6 “clearly lays out the intent — to make child welfare services responsive to the unique needs of children and families through establishing a community-based service delivery system. Along with adequate funding, [HB 6] will allow for communities to bring their own solutions to a system that has struggled for many years.”

HB 4 would “help families care for children and has safeguards in place to prevent misuse of this program and funding,” Olse added.

Madeline McClure, CEO of child advocacy organization TexProtects, also complimented HB 4’s aim to prioritize kinship care.

McClure, who said at a rally earlier that this week that this session seemed to drum up the most bipartisan support she had seen for child welfare in the last two decades, also expressed satisfaction with the legislation in general, although the organization had not been able to review HB 6.

McClure praised HB 5 for giving the DFPS commissioner more flexibility and said “DFPS is the only agency under Health and Human Services Commission where life or death decisions are made” and therefore requires direct oversight by the governor.

Read more: 

Disclosure: TexProtects has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune. A complete list of Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here.

Author:  SANYA MANSOOR – The  Texas Tribune

5 Things to Watch in the Child Welfare Fight this Session

Texas children facing abuse and neglect are going to be a major issue during the 85th Legislative Session as legislators grapple with less funding, a federal court case and troubling headlines about failings at the Department of Family and Protective Services.

In October, a fed-up Gov. Greg Abbott, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and House Speaker Joe Straus sent a letter to the department’s commissioner, Hank Whitman, ordering bolder action to save children from abusive homes and help find foster home placements for them. As the session gets underway, the agency is facing scrutiny over how officials are managing its $150 million in emergency funding. Legislators are also filing bills that could dramatically change Texas’ child welfare system.

Patrick said during a Texas Tribune event this week that child welfare is on his 25-point legislative agenda. He said child welfare is a growing problem in Texas, citing high turnover among state workers and a lack of foster families. But regardless of the funding battle, Patrick said, “we’ll always protect the children.”

“You can’t pass legislation that unfortunately changes the culture of some families, but no child should be in an abusive home, no child should be in danger,” Patrick said. “We need to do all that we can.”

Here are five things to watch during the session.

1. It’s about Texas children … but it’s also about the funding.

Texas legislators have said for months they want to help abused and neglected children but with a tough budget battle ahead, it’s unclear how much lawmakers will deliver on funding. Legislators received a grim report on Monday that they will have $104.87 billion in state funds for the two-year budget, a 2.7 percent decrease from 2015.

The Legislature has a checkered past when it comes to funding requests from state agencies. Consider in October how Senate Finance Committee members had a conniption when Whitman said he needed $53.3 million to help save abused and neglected Texas children. Members were initially unconvinced more money would help solve the agency’s systemic problems. They said Whitman should have told them sooner how dire things were, especially with state caseworkers being unable to see thousands of endangered children in time due to hefty caseloads.

But headline after headline of grim reports about traumatized and abused children sleeping in offices while waiting for a home placement and overworked caseworkers may have softened lawmakers. In December, the Legislative Budget Board authorized $150 million for the agency to hire 829 new caseworkers and give $12,000 raises to existing ones. It will be important to watch whether lawmakers grant the Department of Family and Protective Services’ funding request.

2. The Department of Family and Protective Services is facing big tests this session.

The department is required to deliver weekly reports to the governor’s office and the Legislature on the number of at-risk children who have not been seen by Child Protective Services investigators within one day. State lawmakers expressed outrage when they learned thousands of Texas children had not been seen for days, weeks, or months at a time by a CPS worker due to high caseloads or an inability to locate them.

In addition, the department has to deliver twice-a-month reports looking at: the number of cases staffers are working on; investigations open for more than two months; salary rates for existing and new hires; and the number of people in training. These reports will likely be seen as a key indicator for legislators on whether the emergency funding is helping. May 1 is a big day for the agency — starting then, caseworkers will have to see 90 percent of children who are 6 years old and younger within 24 hours. That deadline comes as budget debates will be in high gear. The agency is also under pressure for supervisors to complete training by June 1. Meanwhile, the agency is starting staff exit surveys this month.

3. Texas’ federal court battle over its child welfare system isn’t over.

U.S. District Judge Janis Jack continues to haunt Texas legislators in the wake of her ruling that the state’s foster care system violated children’s civil rights. Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton and legislators are adamant that the state does not need federal oversight to overhaul the Department of Family and Protective Services.

But a report released Nov. 4 by “special masters” who have been tasked with evaluating the agency made a number of recommendations. Those include decreasing CPS worker caseloads and turnover rates in the agency, improving training, managing and mentorship opportunities for new hires and building up skills for children aging out of the program. In December, Jack ordered the state to stop allowing foster children to be placed in group homes without 24-hour supervision. Jack said in an order on Jan. 9 that the special masters’ recommendations for Texas “require additional information gathering, input, and supervision by the Court.” But Paxton and other state attorneys are arguing the recommendations are “too vague” for the state to follow and are not backed with enough evidence. Regardless of how much funding lawmakers decide to spend to address the child welfare crisis, the federal court may continue to loom over them.

4. The state is raising caseworker salaries, but hiring and retention goals matter, too.

When the Legislative Budget Board said in December the agency could give $12,000 salary raises to existing workers, it was a big win for the Texas social worker community. Agency officials, advocates and legislators are betting on the salary increases to slow the caseworker turnover rate. But part of that $150 million package includes giving reports on the number of new employees hired, staff turnover rates and how many cases they’re working on.

Hiring 829 caseworkers, special investigators and other staff for the agency is going to be a challenge. Besides finding people willing to take on these roles, the agency may have a tough time convincing hires to stay on, even if there are better salaries. Whitman says the agency is working on ways to improve mentoring for new hires going out into the field to see children so they have an idea of what to expect. But the number of cases is the real sticking point for the agency. Ideally, more workers would mean spreading out the workload, but lackluster retention rates has meant the agency is piling more cases on staffers. It will be important to watch how the hiring process goes.

  1. Legislators have bills filed to work on a foster care overhaul.

The phrase “foster care” appears in 18 filed bills in the House and Senate so far, according to the Texas Legislature Online website. Sen. Jane Nelson, R- Flower Mound, chairwoman of the Senate Finance Committee, Sen. Charles Schwertner, R-Georgetown, chairman of the Senate Finance Committee’s Workgroup on Child Protection and Sen. Carlos Uresti, D-San Antonio, jointly filed Senate Bill 11, which would mean a massive overhaul for foster care.

Changes under the bill would include reviewing and extending retention of abuse and neglect records, requiring CPS special investigators to see residential child care facilities abuse victims within three days, implementing benchmarks, funding incentives and consequences for foster care contractors and collaborating with universities to evaluate prevention programs. Patrick has designated S.B. 11 as one of his legislative priorities.

Other bills filed propose giving more financial assistance to caregivers, quicker medical and mental health assessments for children entering the foster care system, establishing county boards to oversee CPS services and tracking repeated child abuse and neglect reports.

Read related Tribune coverage:

  • A board of lawmakers has given final approval for $150 million in funding to help pull the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services out of its crisis mode — but there are strings attached.
  • legal filing from Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton has put Texas leaders in a delicate position of conceding problems in foster care but arguing against a federal judge’s proposed reforms.
  • A workgroup of the Texas Senate Finance Committee was willing to give Child Protective Services caseworkers $12,000 raises but balked at hiring all the new workers Whitman requested.

Author: MARISSA EVANS – The Texas Tribune

More Kids Sleeping in State Offices Amid Foster Shortage

The number of children sleeping in Child Protective Services offices shot up after an internal policy change at the agency limited child placements, according to state data released Thursday.

Sixteen children spent at least two nights sleeping in CPS offices last month, according to the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services — more than three times the number from the year before. Overall, the number of children spending multiple nights in offices with caseworkers has spiked in the last 11 months, with an average of about 10 children left in the placement of last resort each month since April 2015.

The Texas Department of Family and Protective Services concedes it is facing a critical shortage of placements for children removed from their parents.

But compounding that shortage is a recent policy change at the agency that has caused a dramatic increase in the number of children removed from their extended families by CPS workers — and the state appears ill equipped to handle the influx.

New restrictions limiting the agency’s ability to place children with family members outside the home caused CPS removals to grow 37 percent between January 2015 and January 2016, according to the agency.

Meanwhile, the number of children in “parental child safety placements” — also known as short-term, informal kinship placements, in which kids typically stay with extended family members outside of the home — fell 56 percent over the same time period.

The dramatic changes occurred after a new policy limited the pool of adults who qualified to take in a child in an informal kinship placement.

The agency temporarily halted all parental child safety placements last year while it studied policies to improve child safety. That came after Gov. Greg Abbott sent a letter to agency head John Specia, ordering him to step up enforcement of kinship placements. The letter followed several high-profile news reports of child deaths.

In February, the agency reinstated kinship placements but placed new restrictions on families seeking to become caretakers. The agency banned placements in households where a person had any criminal convictions or CPS history, saying the move would reduce the risk of harm to children.

“As we all know, decisions about the appropriateness of PCSPs have to be made quickly,” CPS head Lisa Black wrote in a Feb. 3 memo obtained by the Tribune. “When there is abuse, neglect, or criminal history on a member of a PCSP household, often there is insufficient time to gather information and thoroughly evaluate all the circumstances.”

The crackdown on the number of placements cut back on the risk of placing children in kinship care but also sharply limited the pool of potential child placements. In April of last year, just after the agency stopped placing children in any parental child safety placements, the number spending multiple nights in CPS offices spiked to 19 — its highest level in nearly a decade — from three the month before.

In recent weeks, Specia and Black have separately announced they will retire from the agency at the end of March.

Another factor contributing to the state’s placement shortage is a recent order from a federal judge that the state stop placing children in foster care group homes that lack 24-hour surveillance.

In that ruling, U.S. District Judge Janis Jack found that children in such homes were at undue risk of neglect and abuse. She also found that the state’s long-term foster care violated children’s civil rights, often leaving children “more damaged than when they entered.” The state has appealed that ruling to a higher court.

Author:  – The Texas Tribune

The Texas Tribune is a nonpartisan, nonprofit media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them – about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues

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