Dan Patrick Calls on Churches to Tackle Child Welfare Crisis

Advocates say Patrick's faith-based plan to offer foster care 'support' isn't a substitute for shoring up the state program.

Advocates say Patrick's faith-based plan to offer foster care 'support' isn't a substitute for shoring up the state program.

Dan Patrick called on Texas' faith leaders — though only Christian representatives were present on Wednesday — to assist foster parents as part of a fix for a child welfare system in crisis.
Dan Patrick called on Texas’ faith leaders — though only Christian representatives were present on Wednesday — to assist foster parents as part of a fix for a child welfare system in crisis.  Laura Thompson

Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick says Texas’ religious community may be the answer to fixing the state’s deeply troubled Child Protective Services (CPS) agency, which has come under fire following the deaths of children in state care and a high turnover rate among overburdened social workers.

Patrick announced a new initiative last month — a collaborative effort between “faith-based communities” and CPS to support foster children and their families — and brought nearly 300 religious leaders and lawmakers to the Capitol Wednesday to recruit their help. Patrick said that so far, at least 580 churches have enrolled in the program, which he said would bridge the gap between CPS’ official responsibilities and the logistical and social support a church could provide.

Patrick opened his address at the Texas Faith Leaders Summit with a prayer, asking God to help the government and the church support foster parents and “children who desperately need a family.” He said it’s God’s will for Texas to be a leader in child welfare reform.

Patrick and other guests — all the religiously affiliated speakers at the event were from Christian congregations — promoted programs to recruit volunteers, train pastors and support foster families emotionally and logistically. Though caseworker salaries and turnover have been the central talking points for lawmakers lately, Patrick said his initiative would address the retention rates of foster parents instead.

Researchers from the Presbyterian Children’s Homes and Services said at the summit that approximately 50 percent of foster parents nationwide quit within their first year. This attrition is frequently attributed to the stress of the job, feelings of isolation and lack of community support. That’s where lawmakers want the church to step in.

“The state should work with faith groups to develop new ideas and support that can be streamlined to improve the process of becoming a foster or adoptive parent and help ease the incredible burden these individuals willingly shoulder for our communities,” said state Senator Charles Schwertner, the Republican chair of the Senate Health and Human Services Committee.

But advocates aren’t convinced this partnership will be a cure-all for CPS’ ills. Kate Murphy, a senior policy associate for child protection at Texans Care for Children, told the Texas Tribune that Patrick’s initiative isn’t enough to fully solve the crisis.

“We also need more well-paid CPS caseworkers, mental health services, and coordinated care,” Murphy told the Tribune.

Patrick’s list of “Faith-based Resources to Strengthen Families and Prevent Child Abuse” details 28 actions churches can take to aid foster parents, from support groups to babysitting to transportation help.

The conference and Patrick’s initiative come at a time when a number of key players are recommending improvements for the struggling agency. In July, Department of Family and Protective Services Commissioner Hank Whitman released a 10-point plan to improve CPS, including a call for greater collaboration between the agency and the faith community. Later this week, court-appointed special masters will be submitting their own recommendations to the federal judge who deemed the system “broken” in a scathing ruling against the state last year.

Nor is this the first time lawmakers have considered combining religion and state child welfare services. Last year, state Representative Scott Sanford proposed legislation that would allow private, but taxpayer-funded, adoption agencies to refuse child placements with same-sex couples if it was against their “sincerely held religious beliefs.” The bill never made it past the House.

But with the legislative session just over two months away, Texas lawmakers have renewed the recruitment call to churches.

“I think I speak for the entire legislature when I say we’re committed to doing everything in our power to repair those troubling gaps in our CPS and foster care system,” Schwertner told the crowd of pastors and other church leaders. “But we can’t do it alone; we need your help. We owe it to the people and the children of Texas to get this right.”

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Laura Marie Thompson is a freelance journalist, former Observer intern and Houston native. She writes about race, gender, politics and more.

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