Gov. Greg Abbott signs four bills aimed at reforming Child Protective Services following the end of the Legislative session. Credit: Bob Daemmrich for The Texas Tribune

Gov. Greg Abbott signed four child welfare bills into law on Wednesday, measures that aim to recalibrate how the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services works with endangered children across the state.

The bill signing comes just two days after the end of a legislative session that began in January amid headlines describing a state child welfare system stretched thin, with children sleeping in state offices and, in some cases, dying on the state’s watch. Since October, Abbott, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, and House Speaker Joe Straus have pressured both the department and legislators to make long-awaited changes to how the state helps children recover from abuse and find better living situations.

Abbott said during the 20-minute ceremony that legislators came in knowing the state needed “a true reform from top to bottom” and made that happen.

“With this landmark legislation, with the direction and pathway we’re now on, I expect the Texas Child Protective Services and the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services to strive for, achieve and to accomplish No. 1 ranking status in the United States of America as it concerns taking care of our children,” he said during the signing ceremony at the Department of Family and Protective Services headquarters.

During the signing ceremony, Abbott signed four bills:

  • House Bill 4, which allocates about $350 a month to families caring for abused and neglected children who are related to them
  • House Bill 5, which makes the Department a standalone agency outside of the Texas Health and Human Services Commission
  • House Bill 7, which changes how courts work with the state’s child welfare agency
  • Senate Bill 11, which lets the state create a “community-based care” model, contracting with nonprofits to oversee children in foster care and adoptive homes and a relative’s home.

Abbott named the state’s child welfare crisis as one of four emergency items during his State of the State address in January and warned legislators that the issue would “haunt” them if did not make the most of their 20 weeks at the Capitol.

All four bills Abbott signed touch on various areas of the child welfare system, but HB 5 and SB 11 in particular make substantial changes to how the department operates.

Under HB 5, the Department would get full authority on issues like adoption placements, child abuse or neglect investigations, parental education programs, medical services for child abuse victims, and protective services for people living with disabilities and the elderly. However, Department officials would still share responsibility with the commission on creating medical service plans for children in the system and what information should go into a child’s medical records, also known as a child’s “health passport.”

The bill also re-establishes the Family and Protective Services Council to help make rules and policies for the department. Proponents have said the bill will allow the department to make decisions on their own faster and may help deter future crises.

But SB 11 was less well-received by child welfare advocates. The legislation calls for the department to find eight areas in Texas to implement a new community-based care program by the end of 2019. Advocates have said they’re most worried about contracted organizations in the program taking over case management duties from the state including overseeing caseworker visits, creating permanency plans for children and making sure children and their families are receiving services. Advocates say they fear those community-based care groups will not have the prowess or capacity to take on this kind of work, particularly when it comes to finding homes for children with behavioral and mental health issues. In addition, advocates have expressed concern that the transition started by SB 11 will lead to child welfare workers losing their jobs.

Meanwhile, HB 7 focuses more on how the department and the courts work together with families facing abuse allegations. The legislation directs the department to only remove children from their homes over allegations of violence or abuse, not for reasons like a parent having a low-income or being charged with a nonviolent misdemeanor. The legislation also gives parents more access to the child welfare agency’s evidence about allegations against them; prevents courts from terminating parent-child relationships without evidence; and stop courts from ordering medical or mental health treatment for a child before consulting a health care professional.

Under HB 4, kinship care families would receive monthly payments to help them with ongoing costs of caring for young relatives who have been abused. Families who have had child relatives placed with them by the state have often expressed a willingness to help but lacked the financial resources to do so. Advocates said state-funded $350 monthly payment is a good starting point but stressed it was not nearly enough to cover a child’s needs including clothing and food.

While legislators expressed a doggedness throughout the session to overhaul the state’s child welfare system, those efforts were often overshadowed by an ongoing federal court case. U.S. District Judge Janis Jack ruled in late 2015 that the state’s foster care system violated children’s rights. After the ruling, Jack forced Texas to pay for special masters to scrutinize the beleaguered Department of Family and Protective Services . Throughout a 13-page report released in November, the special masters highlighted a slew of areas the Department should fix including limiting caseworkers to between 14 and 17 cases, updating children’s health records, better managing older children aging out of the system and implementing a 24-hour hotline for children in foster homes and residential centers.

But state leaders and legislators have bemoaned the federal court’s involvement since the ruling. Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton has previously called the court proceedings a “misguided federal takeover of the Texas foster-care system.” Texas lawmakers have been adamant that the state can make fixes to the child welfare system without the court’s help. But child welfare advocates say that the ruling and repeated cycles of bad news about the Department and how children were faring under the state’s watch, emboldened legislators to take action this session.

Read related Tribune coverage:

  • Texas legislators cast final votes Sunday evening on a pair of bills overhauling how the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services works with and finds homes for abused and neglected children.
  • Texans who take in abused and neglected children who are related to them could soon have access to monthly payments to help them pay for items like beds, food and clothes
  • House lawmakers voted to streamline how courts work with the state’s child welfare agency to protect abused and neglected kids — and laid out concrete reasons children can be removed from their homes.
  • After months of calls from advocates to take drastic measures, both chambers unanimously passed bills on that would change how the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services cares for vulnerable children.
  • Texas children facing abuse and neglect is set to be a major issue during this year’s session as legislators grapple with less funding, a federal court case and troubling headlines about failings at the Department of Family and Protective Services.
  • Senate Health and Human Services Committee members voted unanimously to send a bill aimed at overhauling the state’s child welfare system to the full Senate for a vote.
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Marissa Evans

Marissa Evans reports on health and human service policy issues for the Tribune and has been in Austin since October 2016.