The attempt to reform Texas foster care system through legislation

After a Federal judge ruled in 2015 that the Texas foster care system violates children’s rights, the state of Texas’ 85th legislative session made revamping the foster care system a top priority, introducing a litany of bills for consideration.

 

 

A major issue within the foster care system involves its social workers, or lack thereof. Andy Homer, the public affairs executive director at the Texas Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASA), said the turnover rate for caseworkers has been 25 to 30 percent.

“We have such an awful turnover,” Homer said. “We’ve been plagued with the inability to keep the people we hire.”

Homer further said it costs about $54,000 to hire and train a new worker.

“So we’re literally just pissing this money away when we hire these people and then the majority of them leave within two years,” Homer said.

This shortage of employees has been piled onto other workers’ caseloads. The Child Welfare League of America recommends that a caseworker should have no more than 12 cases at a time. Yet according to an investigation by the Statesman, investigators have been known to manage upwards to 20 cases at a time. At one point in 2014, South Texas caseworkers had an average of 85 cases at a time.

The amount Child protective service workers are paid has also been an issue. According to Statesman, from 2007 to 2015, the average salary of an investigator only increased by 6 percent.

Will Francis, the government relations director for the National Association of Social Workers – Texas chapter, further hit on the retention issue as well, saying the state needs to do better at keeping the workforce and developing it, as not doing so has caused problems.

“We have kids sleeping in offices,” Francis said. “We have some major issues on caseload sizes.”

Francis also pointed out the federal lawsuit as another “major issue,” saying he doesn’t think the state has done a great job in responding to the federal lawsuit.

“I think DFPS (Department of Family and Protective Services), is trying their hardest,” Francis said. “But I think in the legislature they’ve sort of avoided it.”

 

Senate Bill 11

SB 11 is a bill created to assist with the caseloads for the workers within the foster care system. The bill would outsource CPS cases to a non-profit third-party entity.

“The major provisions have to do with expanding and privatizing, to a greater extent the ‘Foster Care Redesign,” Homer said.

This redesign is the process that will privatize the system. According to DFPS, it will look to use single contractors “within various geographic areas” that will oversee the children’s living arrangements.

SB 11 will also look to regulate the DFPS a little further, by making sure the department is putting “preventative” money into

Homer mentioned that in region 3b, a northeast region containing seven counties, and 1,392 foster children (as of March 2016), the private contractor, Our Community Our Kids (OCOK) has had more success than the state system in the region.

The bill though has been criticized. Due to privatizing, the workload of the state is expected to lessen. This means letting workers go. An analysis done by the Dallas Morning News shows that up to 3,200 of the 5,800 workers may lose their job.

Francis likes some parts of it but remains unsure about others. While supportive the required medical examination provisions, Francis isn’t sold on privatization. He points to the question of whether DFPS has done a bad job or an “underfunded job.”

Another question he has regards the courts. If a case involving a child in the foster care system were to come up, the state is a party in the case. A private contractor though is not. Therefore, it would be hard to tell how much power a judge would have to force a contractor to carry out services.

“Nobody really knows what it’s like to have a contractor in front of them,” Francis said.

Back in 2005, Texas legislature approved a program to test privatizing the conservatorship duties, by allowing private foster care entities to get involved. The program, however, never developed into anything further, and was repealed just two years later. The bill had the initial goal of full privatization by 2011, and by 2007 wanted to limit the caseload of the workers to 45 cases a month.

 

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House Bill 482

HB 482 is a bill that caps the caseload that each type of social worker in the system can have at any given point. Francis and Homer, however, are both doubtful that it will pass. Homer cited it as more of a “funding decision,” while Francis cited the bill’s history, noting that every time this bill has been filed, it has not passed.

Some push back the bill has gotten has come from a belief that the DFPS should be responsible for capping the caseloads themselves, rather than through legislation.

Francis, however, is “incredibly supportive” of the bill. And while he acknowledges the pushback, he considers passing this legislation a step in the right direction.

“It’s a strong bill without mandates,” Francis said.

 

Related legislation

Hundreds of other related bills have hit the legislature floor this session. Most notable of the bills are Senate Bill 687, 74 and 495 as well as House Bill 634 and 723.

SB 687 aims to target geographic areas that are more prone to neglect or abuse and apply prevention and intervention measures while SB 74 targets specific at-risk children and families and provides them with psychiatric care. SB 495 would put a limit on unsupervised visits of parents or relatives with a history of abuse or neglect. In the House, HB 634 would instill minimum educational requirements for CPS caseworkers while HB 723 calls for the establishment of county boards to oversee child protective services in those respective counties.

Despite, the overwhelming number of legislation related to the issue, Francis at times is unconvinced that Texas legislators are tackling the issues in the way they should be.

“I think when it comes to the federal lawsuit we’ve danced around it a little bit, Francis said. ”I don’t think we’ve addressed it the way we should...We don't really like the federal government telling us what to do and I think that’s been a barrier." 

 

 

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