Lawmakers Try to Bring Order to Disastrously Lax Foster Care Training System

State Rep. Cindy Burkett (R-Garland)
State Rep. Cindy Burkett (R-Garland)

This session, lawmakers are trying to fix one of the biggest gaps in the troubled foster care system: The training requirements for the majority of foster parents, kinship caregivers and adoptive parents are minimal, and the state doesn’t know how closely private placement agencies are adhering to the standards.

House Bill 781, authored by state Rep. Cindy Burkett (R-Garland), would require additional oversight of the 340 private, nonprofit and for-profit agencies that recruit and train foster parents. Burkett introduced the bill Monday evening to the House Committee on Human Services. State child welfare advocates say the bill is a first step in furthering the transparency of the system. Thirteen children died last year while under the protection of licensed caregivers.

“Countless measures have been implemented to assure the safety of children who are in custody of the state,” Burkett said. “We want to feel confident that the best providers are being approved to provide services to children in foster care, and we also want to ensure they acquire the knowledge needed to take on these important roles.”

Currently, the Department of Family and Protective Services has little oversight of the programs that private agencies use to train caregivers, nor does the state know how many training hours each agency requires, or what curricula agencies use for training. There’s also no way to assess whether such trainings are effective or appropriate for the needs of children, many of whom have suffered physical and relational trauma.

The Department of Family and Protective Services requires at least 16 hours of instruction, a woefully inadequate minimum, according to critics.

As part of their training, the state mandates that foster parents be instructed on behavior intervention, psychotropic medicine administration, medical consent, CPR and care for children who have experienced trauma. There’s no state guidance on how much training time is required for each subject, leaving it up to each individual agency.

Burkett’s bill would promote “best practice standards”—undefined in the legislation—by requiring all agencies to tell the state how they’re going to train potential parents. It also mandates that the state evaluate the trainings.

Ashley Harris, with the nonprofit child advocacy organization Texans Care for Children, said the legislation is an important first step in changing how the state trains and regulates private agencies that train potential parents.

“Hopefully in the future we can be able to determine what are some best practices around training and screening [and] what types of trainings are actually resulting in better outcomes,” she said. “We can’t identify what is best if we don’t know what everyone is doing.”

Knox Kimberly, spokesman for Lutheran Social Services of the South, a faith-based organization, said the bill will “provide a needed dose of transparency with respect to training methods.”

Lutheran Social Services operates 16 child-placement programs in cities around the state. Through a program called Foster In Texas, the group provides just under 35 hours of the state-required training, held in both English and Spanish, for potential caregivers. As part of the 35-hour curriculum, the organization includes classes on sexual abuse, disruptive behavior, cultural diversity and self-care for foster parents.

“For our part, we invest considerable time and resources in training, blending a number of different methods that we believe constitute the right combination for training prospective foster parents,” Kimberly told the committee.

Kimberly also pointed out that smaller placement agencies may not have the resources to develop their own curricula. Kimberly said small agencies could benefit from the example of bigger agencies, such as Lutheran Social Services.

He also suggested that the bill could go further by requiring annual caregiver training after children have been placed in the home. Lutheran Social Services, for example, requires annual water-safety training for all its parents. Last year, two foster siblings drowned while visiting Lake Georgetown.

Burkett’s bill would also increase the minimum training hours for foster parents from 16 to 35 hours. (By comparison, the state requires that would-be nail technicians receive 600 hours of training.)

“Why would you only require 16 [hours], when it’s more than obvious—and even on the website for DFPS they say this—it is not enough,” Burkett told the Observer. “We need to make sure that [the kids] are coming into an environment that’s safer. It’s our children, and we’re talking health, safety, lives, so it’s important.” 

The Department of Family and Protective Services, apart from contracting out child-placement services, also runs its own service and training for foster and adoptive parents. The department estimates in the bill’s fiscal note that it would need about $268,000 a year to implement the new standards mandated by the bill. At the hearing, no one was able to provide an estimate of the cost for private placement agencies to step up the training of foster and adoptive parents.

Burkett said she is optimistic that budget-writers will find the money.

“I think that [we’ve] got a little bit of give built in the bill for things that are directly related to safety issues,” she told the Observer. “I don’t anticipate a problem.” 

On Monday the House Committee on Human Services tabled the bill after 16 minutes.

HB 781 comes in the wake of recommendations from the House Select Committee on Child Protection, led by Rep. Dawnna Dukes (D-Austin), which was created after a rash of child deaths within the system. The committee’s interim report suggested that the state review and strengthen foster care screening and training. Burkett said the bill has received no pushback so far. Spokespeople for a gamut of child welfare advocacy and public policy organizations, including the Texas Alliance of Child and Family Services, Center for Public Policy Priorities, One Voice Texas and Court Appointed Special Advocates, registered as “for” the bill, but did not testify.

Published at 2:59 pm CST