A father holds his child in a public health clinic outside of McAllen, Texas. Credit: Callie Richmond / Texas Tribune

Texas legislators from both chambers unanimously passed bills on Wednesday that would change how the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services cares for vulnerable children.

The simultaneous debates in both chambers came as advocates have pushed for months for lawmakers to take drastic measures to fix the state’s broken child welfare system. Gov. Greg Abbott announced the issue as one of four emergency items during his State of the State address in January.

House members passed House Bill 4 with a vote of 145-0 to allow monthly payments for relatives caring for children in their families who have been abused. The chamber also passed House Bill 5, which would make the Department a standalone agency, with a vote of 144-0.

“Today the House showed that improving child protection is among our highest priorities,” House Speaker Joe Straus said in a statement. “We have taken a couple of very important steps toward providing better protection and care for children in terrible circumstances, with more to come in the weeks ahead.”

Meanwhile, the Senate voted 31-0 on Senate Bill 11, a far-reaching bill from the upper chamber.

The Senate Health and Human Services Committee voted to send SB 11 for a floor vote last week. State Sen. Charles Schwertner, a Georgetown Republican and chairman of the Senate Finance Committee’s Workgroup on Child Protection, is the bill’s lead author.

The bill would create a so-called community based care program in which the Department contracts with local nonprofit organizations to handle casework. Other provisions include a pilot program for nonprofit organizations 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 into the system. The bill would also require the Department to retain abuse and neglect records for longer periods of time.

“Today’s actions by the House and Senate are a significant first step toward reforming the the child welfare system and creating a culture that gives every child a chance to not only survive, but thrive in Texas,” Gov. Greg Abbott said in a statement.

Julian Aguilar, Morgan Smith and Patrick Svitek contributed to this report.

Read related Tribune coverage:

  • 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 Wednesday morning to send a bill aimed at overhauling the state’s child welfare system to the full Senate for a vote.
  • Advocates and families testified all day in front of House Human Services members Monday as legislators buckled down to look at key bills that would overhaul how the state takes care of endangered children.
  • Standing in front of the Capitol in 80-degree heat earlier this month, attendees gathered at a rally urging legislators to make long awaited changes to how the state handles abused and neglected children.

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