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The Whole Star

John Specia
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Family and Protective Services Commissioner John Specia.

Texas is pushing ahead with controversial reforms to the scandal-plagued foster care system despite a recent report that the overhaul is over budget.

A recent cost evaluation by state consultant reported that Texas hasn’t put enough funding toward the system and, as the Observer reported in May,  more funding will be necessary to keep the new system sustainable.

The Texas Legislature passed the foster care reform in 2011. It allowed the Department of Family and Protective Services, responsible for foster care regulation and administration, to shift some duties to private companies. These so-called lead companies would oversee privately contracted child-placing agencies responsible for recruiting and monitoring foster homes. Each lead company would oversee placing agencies in a certain part of the state. One main goal of the overhaul is to keep children closer to their homes.

But the Legislature had one caveat: the new system couldn’t cost any additional money, meaning lead companies must provide more services for the same amount of money that the state was spending on the old system. One company has already pulled out of its contract with the state, in part due to funding issues.

The Health and Human Services Commission, which oversees the department, contracted in July with the Boston-based Public Consulting Group to do a two-month study of “Foster Care Redesign,” as the overhaul is officially called. The report concluded that the system needs more money. “Additional resources are necessary to build an infrastructure to support and maintain a successful [lead company],” the recently-released report stated, adding that funds could come from alternative sources, like outside fundraising. The report recommended that Texas amend the 2011 reform legislation to require the new system to spend the same amount of money over the span of two years, instead of one year, to give the department more flexibility. The report also noted Texas is the only state attempting a foster care system overhaul without expecting to add funding.

The consulting group presented the study’s results at a Friday meeting of stakeholders who advise the state on how to implement, regulate and track the progress of the overhaul.

“We seem to have a very firm understanding that this isn’t a cost-neutral model. That to achieve what we want takes more money,” said Judge Scott McCown, director of the Children’s Rights Clinic at the University of Texas at Austin. “So I’m confused, when are we gonna tell people that this isn’t cost-neutral? When are we gonna fashion a plan for more money? … I just don’t know what we’re doing, it seems like a march of folly for me.”

Family and Protective Services Commissioner John Specia said later during the meeting that his staff is figuring out how best to ask the Legislature for more money during the upcoming 2015 session. At a recent legislative budget hearing, Specia included a one-time request for $1.6 million in funding for the overhaul. But that amount is just a placeholder, Specia said Friday. Nothing is final yet.

“I’m being pretty frank with the Legislature,” he said. “There are clearly issues related to funding. Cost neutrality, I think, is very difficult. Unfortunately we don’t have the hard numbers to say what does that mean,” Specia said. “I’ve got to be able to articulate what we get for the extra dollars they give us and we’re working on that.”

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Speakers at a conservative green energy panel held at the Paramount Theater in Austin.
Carl Lindemann
Speakers at a conservative green energy panel held at the Paramount Theater in Austin.


Tucker Eskew is no stranger to thankless tasks. Eskew was the Republican operative who, in 2008, had the honor of tutoring Sarah Palin on being a vice-presidential candidate. Now, he’s ready to take the heat from fellow Republicans for tackling climate change and championing green energy. Eskew and a crew of fellow conservative green activists brought their mission to Austin yesterday for a lightly attended event. Billed as “a fresh conservative take on energy policy,” the summit attracted about 60 people to the Paramount Theater downtown.

“Remember the saying ‘I was country before country was cool’?” Eskew said. “Some Republicans picked that up and said ‘I was conservative before conservative was cool.’ Maybe one day, we’ll look back on this event and realize we were clean energy conservatives before it was cool.”

The hopeful message is certainly a far cry from today’s “drill, baby, drill!” conservatism. But if the movement—if you can call it that yet—is simply out to swap oil and coal for gas and nuclear, it could be seen as another variation of business as usual. But the speakers seemed eager to break some conservative taboos.

Among the panelists: former Texas Republican state Sen. Kip Averitt, now head of the Texas Clean Energy Coalition; Debbie Dooley, founder of the Green Tea Coalition and national coordinator of the Tea Party Patriots; former six-term Congressman Bob Inglis (R-South Carolina); and Eli Lehrer of conservative think tank R Street Institute.

“What we’re looking for are energy optimists and climate realists,” Inglis said. Though there’s no certainty in climate science, Inglis said, the risks of doing nothing are real. “And what are you going to do in the face of that risk? Proceed pell-mell, or…buy an insurance policy?”

Implacable climate skeptics need to face the political realities, he said. “If conservatives don’t step forward and say, ‘Have we got an idea for you! End all the subsidies [for oil, gas and nuclear], attach all the costs to all the fuels, and watch the free enterprise system sort this all out,’” then Democrats will go forward with their own solutions.

But Republicans face their own political risks for acting on climate change.

“We have a whole boatload of [Texas Republicans] that want to do the right thing, but they have to tip-toe around it. They get timid. They get scared because, quite frankly, they’re afraid of the tea party,” said Averitt, who served as the chair of the Senate Committee on Natural Resources for nearly a decade.

Meanwhile, the fossil fuel lobby maintains its grip in Texas. As a counterpoint to the clean energy confab, the right-wing Texas Public Policy Foundation is hosting its own energy and climate policy summit in Houston this week featuring appearances by GOP ticket-toppers Rick Perry and Dan Patrick. The foundation, which is funded by fossil fuel interests, has been an extraordinarily harsh critic of renewable energy.

“Renewable energy is unreliable and parasitic,” wrote Kathleen Hartnett White, a former chair of the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality and the head of the foundation’s energy-policy wing, in a 36-page paper she recently released making a “moral case” for fossil fuels. No one in the conservative climate realist camp appears to be on the agenda for the conference this week.

But Dooley says the mood is changing. Some tea partiers, she said, are ready to take a stand, even against Koch-funded front groups like Americans for Prosperity.

“Americans for Prosperity is not tea party,” Dooley said. To combat the Koch party line, conservatives need to change the way they talk about energy.

“Talk about free markets, national security,” she said. “There’s nothing more vulnerable to terrorist attack than our centralized [power] grid. Well, it’s harder to attack rooftop solar.”

Eskew argued that the current frenzy surrounding Uber—the ride-share service that’s operating illegally in a number of cities, including Austin—offers a compelling comparison for how free markets could reshape the energy sector. Eskew compared ride-share services to rooftop solar power. Both pose fundamental challenges to highly regulated, staid industries (taxis and utilities, respectively) but provide direct benefits to the consumer.

“Let’s look at [Uber] from the perspective of the driver, not the consumer. The driver makes a capital expense purchasing the car, then is able to sell back excess capacity into the transportation grid. Isn’t that like solar power?”

For the United States to effectively combat climate change, conservatives will have to make an extremely difficult about-face. Still, the event yesterday hinted at the possibility of such a radical transformation. Katherine Lorenz, president and treasurer of the Mitchell Foundation, a co-sponsor of the event, was on hand. That’s Mitchell as in George Mitchell, known as the “father of fracking.” According to Lorenz, who is Mitchell’s granddaughter, the current shale boom has temporarily eclipsed his true legacy.

“Despite being in the oil and gas industry and having so many of his peers and colleagues think he was nuts… he was also deeply committed to environmental issues,” she said. “That’s really emblematic of what’s going on with clean energy and the environment today. We need more people to stand up for what they believe, who understand that what the rest of their party, peers and colleagues are saying might not be the right way for the Earth.”

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Thursday, August 14, 2014 in Ferguson, Missouri.
Thursday, August 14, 2014 in Ferguson, Missouri.

Ours was a summer punctuated by upheaval. On Aug. 9, gunshots were heard in Ferguson, Missouri, when a white police officer fired multiple times at Michael Brown, a young, unarmed black man. The second horror immediately followed, quietly, when his corpse was left on the street, untouched and largely exposed to the heat for four-and-a-half hours, sending a wordless, but potent message to the community about the power the police and government exert over their lives, bodies and final dignity.

President Obama, along with other lawmakers and commentators who gauge the state of the nation, began calling for peace. The press carefully documented the nights of “peace” in Ferguson as if it were a barometer of the nation’s—or at least the town’s—progress.

But what powerful people are actually calling for is quiet. Peace and quiet, as anyone who has ever demanded it at home or the workplace knows, are not synonymous. Peace, with its potentially long-lasting effects, requires investment. Peace takes listening and reflection. Quiet can be achieved through suppression or closing our eyes and ears to the clear signals that all is not right with our communities and nation. In some instances, as in the act of displaying Brown’s corpse, violence expresses itself quietly.

Since Brown’s killing a month ago, I have turned over the distinction between peace and quiet in my mind, my thoughts returning to moments this summer that had upset my sense of peace. Quietly, I walked into any number of restaurants and businesses in Austin to find that the entire “front of house” consisted of white waiters, white clerks, while black and Latinos were relegated to the “back of the house.”

I wondered if some elaborate game of chance might explain a workforce consisting of young, white people in what is often described as Texas’ most liberal city. There is nothing peaceful in repeatedly witnessing—much less experiencing—no fewer than four patrol cars surround black motorists on the east side, the once redlined district where working-class blacks and Latinos were shunted in an urban planning design built on segregation. On each occasion handcuffs were in use. In one instance, I spotted, a few blocks away, a young male hipster comfortably laying down on the sidewalk chatting with an officer, as if they were friends, and equals.

Each incident contributes to a singular message about where the community and business leaders believe people of color belong. Such attitudes are made plain in real estate ads that describe a neighborhood “transitioning” or, more crudely, when I hear locals blithely describe an area becoming increasingly upscale and white as “getting cleaned up.”

Austin City Council candidate Ora Houston recently described the African-American experience in Austin bluntly. “The city of Austin is very racist,” she said at a candidate forum for District 1, the African-American “opportunity” district. Black people in Austin, she said, “don’t have a sense of place.”

In November, Austin voters will elect a new City Council, based on single-member districts, after decades of at-large representation. While local representation based, roughly, on communities of interest presents opportunities for historically marginalized groups, some worry that the new system will cost the city its international stature and downscale ambitions. Evidently, democracy and political empowerment are fine ideals, as a brand.

But where blacks and Latinos are not made to feel invisible, their presence is systematically, and mathematically, diminished. Consider the findings from a UT-Austin/Texas Tribune public opinion poll released over the summer that found, among other things, that Texans believe undocumented immigrants should be deported immediately.

But the portrait of Texas was drawn primarily from people 45 and older (57 percent of those surveyed), and from people with no children living at home (63 percent). According to the U.S. Census, the median age in Texas is 34 and we rank among the states with the most children at home. The sampling reflected the state’s black population but weighted toward whites by under-sampling Latinos by 10 percent. We are left to conclude that despite the state’s demographics, the poll reflects the opinions of older whites.

Each of these acts undermines the peacefulness of a community, a state and our nation. This isn’t simply my conclusion. In the summer of 1967, President Lyndon B. Johnson formed what became known as the Kerner Commission to investigate the factors that had precipitated the eruption of riots across the nation.

The commission found that the police are not merely a “spark” factor. “To some Negroes,” according to the report, “police have come to symbolize white power, white racism and white repression.”

Behind the confrontations with police, the commission discovered grievances with a systemic culture of racism manifested by: unemployment and underemployment, disrespectful white attitudes, inadequacy of municipal services, ineffectiveness of the political structure and grievance mechanisms. The commission concluded that whites were oblivious to the lived reality of segregation and poverty.

One recent Saturday afternoon, as I drove past Lady Bird Lake on the east side, I noticed four patrol cars in the park. Two officers were escorting a Latino man away, in handcuffs. Police turned up on the scene after receiving an urgent call from a resident of the nearby new condo development who claimed the homeless man had beaten a dog to death with his bare hands. But when the officers arrived, they found a very alive pit bull. The man had simply swatted the dog’s behind for misbehaving and, according to the police report, the caller later admitted to exaggerating the situation.

The show of force—four officers sticking around once it was clear the man wasn’t dangerous, but was wanted on an outstanding alcohol-related warrant—represents a common pattern of policing. Overlooked in the calls for calm and peace is that the police ultimately reflect and enforce the values and attitudes of the community they serve, the people eyeing cheap property in neighborhoods that need “cleaning up.” Such are the ongoing attacks on peace, ones replicated in many cities across Texas.

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Vivian Farinazzo

Is the state agency charged with guarding Texas’ abused kids trying to privatize services needlessly?

The Department of Family and Protective Services continues to push forward on a plan to bring on more private companies—despite evidence that its effort to overhaul the state’s foster care system is faltering. Many advocates think recent turmoil with Providence Services Corporation, the first contractor tapped by the state to oversee a portion of the foster care system, suggests the experiment is already a failure. The next stage in “foster care redesign,” as the state calls it, is set to take effect this month when another private company takes over a seven-county North Texas region including Fort Worth. Instead, critics argue the Legislature should invest more money in a state-run system and work out the issues without the involvement of private companies.

The need for reform in foster care is not in question. In the fiscal year spanning September 2012 to September 2013, 10 children died from abuse or neglect while under state care. In fiscal year 2014, three children died, including 6-year-old Jenetta Smith and her brother, 4-year-old Riley. Both children drowned in Lake Georgetown in July, under the care of a foster family monitored by Providence. Until August, when Providence abruptly pulled out of its five-year contract, the company was in charge of a rural 60-county region in West Texas that the state now must again oversee.

Foster care redesign was meant to eliminate the rise in child deaths and streamline foster care services provided by a multitude of sub-contractors. In 2011, the Texas Legislature passed a bill allowing DFPS to shift the administration of its more than 300 privately owned child placement agencies—responsible for recruiting and monitoring foster placements—to lead companies, like Providence. Each “lead” company manages a certain region of the state. The goal is to keep children closer to their siblings and home communities, and avoid bouncing them from one home to the next.

In June, the Texas Sunset Commission, which looks into the efficacy of state agencies, released an excoriating report on DFPS. The report noted that foster care redesign is a “risky endeavor” that has no long-term comprehensive plan. Redesign “presents inherent challenges and risks to DFPS and to the state,” the report warned. “If a contractor fails or pulls out of the contract, DFPS is then faced with the difficult task of assuming the contractor’s responsibilities temporarily while the agency procures a new contract.”

That’s exactly what happened with Providence. In August, the company ended its contract with the state, citing a lack of services in its assigned region, such as residential treatment centers and adequate transportation for children. Providence also had IT system issues and was $2 million over budget.

The state has reclaimed responsibility for keeping track of the 1,100 foster children already in the system as well as any incoming children removed from homes due to abuse and neglect. The department intends to continue providing some of the services Providence was implementing in its redesign effort, but has no plans yet to tap another contractor to take over the region. But if the state can handle what it hired a private agency to do in the first place, what’s the point of moving forward with privatization?

Ashley Harris from child welfare non-profit Texans Care for Children says the state may be able to continue running Providence’s programs effectively.

“If the Legislature gives DFPS the funding it needs, I think the agency can meet those goals without spending extra money to go through the middleman contractor,” Harris said. “Certainly it would have been easier if they had done it in the first place rather than coming in to pick up the pieces after Providence pulled out. If they are successful, it would be another reason not to go back to the redesign approach.”

But Family and Protective Services Commissioner John Specia continues to push privatization as the only solution to fixing the system.

In a recent video to DFPS employees following Providence’s contract termination, Specia struck a reassuring tone:

“We’re going to continue because foster care redesign is an essential process for this department. We must improve the way we deliver foster care services and we’re doing that through rolling out foster care redesign,” he said. “We’re going to have steps and missteps but we’re going to keep going forward to improve the system for our children and families.”

The second company to take up foster care reform, the non-profit Our Community Our Kids, began accepting new children who need placement into homes on Sept. 1.

Wayne Carson, CEO of the Our Community Our Kids parent organization ACH Child and Family Services, said his team has learned from Providence’s mistakes. One of the most important lessons, Carson said, was the power of a good IT infrastructure, which helps keep track of key information on foster children in the region. Providence had issues with IT system accessibility early on and had to manually enter each child’s information as it obtained it from each child-placing agency.

“You need good information to make good decisions about children, to be able to follow children to make sure they’re getting the kind of care they deserve and to know where your foster homes are so you can place children in their neighborhoods,” Carson said.

One issue, which Providence also faced, continues: the state’s refusal to spend more money for more services. Carson said Our Community Our Kids knew it would have to invest extra money from the beginning. The 2011 legislation mandated that lead agencies work with the same level of funding that the state had used to run the old system in each region, despite the mandate for more services. The state budgeted a one-time amount of $208,000 for startup costs, but Our community Our Kids had to front between $800,000 and $1 million more.

But Carson is confident Our Community Our Kids has enough experience and rapport with the community to make privatization work.

“Foster care redesign is a way to help coordinate the system of care,” Carson said. “We’ve been able to create better access to services that already existed for children that, because the system was so fragmented and there was no cohesion among providers, it was difficult to make that happen.”

Diana Martinez with TexProtects, another non-profit geared toward helping Texas children, said meeting the goals set forward by redesign is a necessary part to keeping children safe, no matter who’s in charge of it.

“Something definitely needs to change,” Martinez said. “If it’s through private providers that’s great, if it’s the state being able to put more money into foster care so that we can build up those types of resources that we need, that’s great too.”

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