Advocates, State Officials Fight Over Foster Care System Overhaul

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F. Scott McCown
Steph Swope/www.utexas.edu/law
F. Scott McCown

Depending on whom you ask, the state of Texas is either rushing to implement potentially disastrous changes to its foster care system or taking bold action to fix serious problems.

On Tuesday, the House Human Services Committee heard testimony on so-called foster care redesign, a suite of changes meant to keep foster kids closer to home and provide them and their families more services. Under the redesign, the state is split into eleven regions and a private contractor is designated to oversee each, developing local resources and reporting to the Department of Family and Protective Services (DFPS) on metrics like how many kids find placement in their original communities.

Texas rolled out the new system in a West Texas region about eight months ago. Another launch, for a region around Dallas, is scheduled for July. At the hearing, which was crowded, emotional and eight hours long, several child welfare advocates begged lawmakers not to proceed until they saw results from the first two regions. There’s little preliminary data, they said, and warning signs already, such as reports that the first region’s contractor, the Austin-based Providence Services Corporation, is already $2 million in the hole.

“First, we don’t have any outcome data to know whether this effort is improving things for kids so we don’t know if we’re going in the right direction,” said stakeholder Scott McCown, director of the Children’s Rights Clinic at the University of Texas School of Law. “To go forward and further dismantle the [old] system before we find out if this is feasible in any way? We just wind up with a disaster.”

But DFPS Commissioner John Specia said more regional rollouts would allow for more data collection and help determine whether the redesign is going to work. Asked by state Rep. Elliott Naishtat (D-Austin) to grade the progress of the redesign, Specia said he’d give it an “incomplete.”

“There’s not enough data,” Specia said, “but we have to change the system. The current system is not working.”

Nobody disputes that. The changes, passed by the Texas Legislature in 2011, are the latest of several fixes proposed since 2005, when a rash of child deaths demanded action. Tragically, the past here seems prologue. Ten children in state custody died of abuse and neglect in the last fiscal year, up from two in 2012. Caseworker loads remain far higher than federal recommendations and contribute to massive turnover, meaning fewer and less experienced eyes on kids in care. Several young adults who aged out of the system described horrible abuses at the hands of their foster parents and being disbelieved by their caseworkers. Several child welfare advocates say these problems won’t be addressed by foster care redesign, even if it succeeds at the metrics to be studied.

“The [performance indicators] do not meaningfully measure a child’s well-being,” said Ashley Harris of the nonprofit Texans Care for Children. “Nor do they measure progress toward safety and stable and permanent placements.”