Back in 2011, when Texas legislators announced their plan to improve the child welfare system through privatization, advocates expressed alarm. In 2013, after partial implementation of the plan, an even larger chorus begged lawmakers to slow the rollout until it became clear whether it would work. Now, as the Texas legislature convenes again, a new voice is calling for a halt: the House and Human Services Committee.
Last week, the key legislative committee suggested that the state temporarily stop the rollout of controversial reforms to the child welfare system. Opponents have said the partial privatization of the state system responsible for thousands of foster children—known as “foster care redesign”—is a hasty and potentially detrimental overhaul.
In its interim report, the Committee recommending that the Department of Family and Protective Services stop contracting with any new private companies to manage the sprawling foster care system. The committee said lawmakers and child welfare experts need more time to study how effective foster care reforms have been so far. That’s exactly what stakeholders told the Observer last year, when we reported on potential problems with redesign that have since come to pass.
Foster care redesign is an effort by the Department of Family and Protectives Services, which oversees administration and regulation of the foster care system, to keep children who are removed from their families due to abuse and neglect closer to their home communities.
The “halt order” comes amid concern from critics about the cost of reform and safety of foster children in the new system.
The original 2011 legislation put into the motion the state’s foray into foster care reform, with one caveat: the redesign must cost the same to implement as the old system. Since then only two lead companies have been tapped to take over portions of the system.
But last time we checked, the first two contractors were considerably over budget, and more money will be needed to provide new services. The first company, the for-profit Providence Services Corporation, pulled out of their contract just 11 months into the rollout, citing cost as one of their reasons.
After a rash of child deaths in the system in 2013, child welfare advocates were wary reform efforts wouldn’t keep kids safe. And last year, the redesign was called a “risky endeavor” by the Sunset Advisory Commission, a legislative committee that monitors and has the authority to shut down government agencies.
The reform set up goes like this: the Department contracts some administrative and regulatory duties to the different private lead companies. Those contractors, in turn, manage willing private child-placing agencies within their allotted region of the state, or “catchment area.” Before reform began agencies contracted individually with the state to manage and recruit foster families, or run group homes or intensive treatment centers for children who wouldn’t do well in a family setting.
Since Providence pulled out, only one company currently contracts with the state to provide services under the redesign model. The not-for-profit Our Community Our Kids, a branch of the 100-year-old not-for-profit ACH Child and Family Services, has managed a small seven-county region near Dallas since December 2013. The Commission’s recommendation does not affect Our Community Our Kids’ continuing contract and service in their area, it only asks that the Department keep from implementing reform in the other 247 counties in the state.
Commissioner John Specia, who heads the Department of Family and Protective Services, said he has no plans to abandon foster care redesign.
Department spokesman Patrick Crimmins sent the Observer this email response when asked what their plans were:
“Our comment: We understand the committee’s recommendation and we are proceeding very deliberately with [redesign], and continuing careful analysis of the data, and will not be expanding to any other catchment areas until authorized by the Legislature. We’re continuing work on a long-term implementation plan for redesign as recommended by the Sunset Advisory Commission, and hope to have that completed in a few months.”
Ashley Harris, with children’s advocacy group Texans Care for Children, said the state should stop its privatization bid and called on the Legislature to give more direction on the issue.
“It’s been made pretty clear especially with this latest house interim report that the Department really needs to step back and get some things in order before they continue their privatization effort,” she said. “When it comes to kids in foster care maybe we should actually make well-informed decisions before moving forward with things that could be ultimately more detrimental, if not harmful to [kids’] stability and well-being.”