Texas State Capitol in Austin, Texas Credit: Stuart Seeger / Creative Commons

The flurry of bills passed during the recent state legislative session to address the state’s foster care and child protection system was “just the beginning” of meaningful efforts to improve the state’s ability to care for some of its most vulnerable residents.

Child and family welfare workers from local organizations gathered at the San Antonio Area Foundation‘s offices Thursday to hear a recap of the successes for foster care and child protection that took place during the 85th session of the Legislature.

“[The 85th Legislature] was impactful and this is a long game,” said Katie Olse, executive director of the Texas Alliance of Child and Family Services, an advocacy organization focusing on educating policymakers on the needs of abused, neglected, and high-risk children. “There is a lot of work we can do, and we don’t have to wait every two years to make things better.”

The conversation was hosted by The Children’s Shelter in partnership with the Texas Alliance of Child and Family Services and TexProtects. Judge John Specia, with Texas Star Alliance, and State Rep. Ina Minjarez (D-124) were keynote speakers.

Gov. Greg Abbott made child protection a top emergency item at the beginning of the legislative session, and the Legislature responded by focusing on overhauling foster care services and successfully passing sweeping reforms of foster care and child protective services.

Six Senate bills and nine House bills aimed at improving the state’s foster care were approved.

The reforms came after a federal judge ruled in 2015 that Texas had violated foster children’s constitutional rights to be free from an unreasonable risk of harm. The class-action lawsuit, brought by the New York-based advocacy group Children’s Rights Inc. on behalf of children in long-term foster care in 2011, argued that Texas caseworkers were assigned too many children for them to effectively monitor and that children were placed too far away from home into settings where they did not get appropriate care.

This session, the Legislature had projected a total of $10 billion less to work with in funding child welfare services than in 2015. Despite budget cuts, however, child welfare saw its budget increase by $508.5 million through Senate Bill 1, which increased funding to expand programs for abused and neglected children across the state.

House Bill 5 established the Department of Family and Protective Services (DFPS) as a standalone agency under the governor and independent of Texas Health and Human Services (HHS).

Specia highlighted the bill’s importance by addressing how agency culture may not always effectively support complicated change processes. “The HHS is primarily focused on Medicaid, which is a completely different structure and culture – and child welfare needs to change quickly,” he said.

Specia said that this change will prove to be important in allowing for agency change to happen more readily, with DFPS commissioner overseeing the agency, while allowing for HHSC to be involved when needed.

Senate Bill 11 aims to ensure that the quality and standards of abuse and neglect prevention improve through effective working partnerships, addressing access to appropriate treatment and placement options, improving foster care contract oversight and accountability, and strengthening adoptions.

The legislation was passed “after multiple hearings and iterations, [where] San Antonio delegates made the bill workable while remaining ambitious,” Olse said, referring to the work done by local legislators in trying to raise child welfare standards throughout the state.

SB 11 creates a community-based care program in which DFPS contracts with local nonprofit organizations to handle casework. Other provisions include a pilot program for nonprofits to handle behavioral health care for children, requiring managed care organizations be notified of a child’s placement change within 24 hours, and requiring children under conservatorship to have medical exams within three days of entering the system. The bill would also require the retention of abuse and neglect records for longer periods of time.

Specia said SB 11 is important is because it “recognizes that changes are made in communities” and that “innovation happens within communities and not at the state level.”

Pamela McPeters is director of public policy at TexProtects, an advocacy organization that pushes for better policies, reforms, and funding increases to protect at-risk children receiving state-funded services.

McPeters said House Bill 1549, which expands early intervention efforts, requires fatality data analyses and file reviews, and provides measures aimed toward retention of skilled, dedicated workers to aid some of the state’s most vulnerable youth.

In an effort to increase retention and improve morale at the agency, caseworkers with Child Protective Services received a $12,000 annual raise on Jan. 1, 2017.

McPeters highlighted the need for continued focus on caring for the service providers along with caring for caseworkers in order to achieve the highest level of care.

Since the salary increase, employee turnover dropped to 18%, down from 25% (the statewide turnover rate for employment is 17%). McPeters said that issues with pay, supervision, and stress are the principal reasons why people leave their jobs, and that new legislation worked to address them in order to retain skilled workers.

HB 1549 includes provisions that bring down caseloads and promote additional support for workers.

“We want to prevent compassion fatigue, which occurs with high-stress and difficult jobs,” McPeters said. “This bill provides funding to develop and make available a program for caseworkers who experience secondary trauma.”

House Bill 3859 allows faith-based organizations to exercise their “sincerely held religious beliefs” when participating as providers in Texas’ child welfare system.

Faith-based organizations may place a child in a religion-based school, deny referrals for abortion-related contraceptives, drugs, or devices, and refuse to contract with other organizations that don’t share their religious beliefs. If a faith-based group refuses services to children or prospective homes on religious grounds, they would be required to refer the child or parent to a different organization that can help them.

House Bill 7 requires that more time be spent evaluating the risks of placements regarding the best interest of the child, allowing for family and caregivers to testify regarding placements.

House Bill 4 increases monetary assistance for qualified “kinship caregivers,” relatives who step up to care for children who must be removed from their home. The bill would allow these caregivers with income at 300% above the poverty level ($73,800 for a family of four) or less to receive up to 50% of the basic rate paid for foster care on a monthly basis.

“I’ve never met a community more invested in child protection than Bexar County,” Olse said.

Attendees at the session included individuals from the United Way, Roy Maas Youth Alternatives, the THRU Project, the Bexar County Child Welfare Board, and local clinics and hospitals.

For a comprehensive list of bills and resolutions from the 85th Legislature, click here.

Roseanna Garza

Roseanna Garza

Roseanna Garza reports on health and bioscience for the San Antonio Report.