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Texas Lawmakers Took Partial Steps to Shore Up CPS

June 27, 2017
Contact: Lee Nichols, Communications Director
[email protected]

At the beginning of the 85th Texas Legislature, Governor Greg Abbott and Senate Finance Chair Jane Nelson declared “Let’s Get It Right!”

That slogan reflected both optimism for the legislative session as well as acknowledgement that previous Child Protective Services (CPS) reforms fell short.

Faced with a “Perfect Storm” of an imploding CPS workforce, a federal court decision ruling our foster care system unconstitutional, and headline-grabbing fatalities, elected officials declared this was the session to decisively tackle child maltreatment.
So, did lawmakers get it right?

The budget always reveals true legislative priorities. The biggest win for kids was increased CPS funding – over a half a million new dollars, for a total of $3.5 billion.

Lawmakers finally recognized the key to CPS’s caseworker turnover crisis – pitiful pay – and granted these critical life-and-death decision-making caseworkers a $12,000 per year salary increase. It was empirically obvious that significantly boosting the $34,829 starting salary would increase the pool and caliber of job candidates.

Lawmakers also approved 1,400 new hires to reduce caseloads.

Both measures began as emergency expenditures last year and carried forward into the new budget.

The changes are already producing results – since the January 1 implementation, turnover has reduced 30%, and children are being seen within required time frames in almost 90% of cases, versus 78% last year.

Another big win was Rep. Cindy Burkett’s HB 1549, the Child Protection Act, which also addresses caseworker turnover by requiring DFPS to develop a caseload management system, provide secondary traumatic stress supports to caseworkers and designate after-hours investigators in high-need areas.

It also requires DFPS collaboration with nonprofits and advocates to develop data-based regional foster care capacity needs plans and creates geographic, risk-driven child abuse prevention strategies to reach more at-risk families. The new law will create strategies to reduce child abuse fatalities through better data collection, analysis, reporting, training for first responders and support to Child Fatality Review Teams.

Burkett’s HB 4 increases financial assistance to kinship caregivers, helping ease the foster care capacity crisis. Studies show placing maltreated children with kin who know and love the children produces substantially better outcomes than placements with strangers.

Currently, these relatives receive only a $1,000 one-time payment, plus some expense reimbursement – forcing some kinship placements, such as fixed-income grandparents, to break down due to the cost of child-rearing.

Under the new law, families below a certain income will now receive monthly payments at 50% of the foster care rate, which will divert more children out of foster care and save taxpayer dollars.

Yet, rather than letting these pragmatic, business-driven reforms play out in improving the system – and to answer the federal court’s demand for improvements to Texas’ unconstitutional foster care system – lawmakers “outsourced” even more of foster care.

Senate Bill 11 builds on DFPS contracts to regional nonprofit foster care providers to develop “community based foster care.” It takes the additional step of privatizing the CPS foster care workers’ function. But why do that when we just gave raises and reduced caseloads? Why mess with that process and provide less oversight to the very privatized system where abuses have taken place?

We agree foster care should operate on a community level, but DFPS must devise rigorous checks and balances for monitoring abused children’s well-being, as they are the state’s responsibility. We must also develop strong backup plans in case a contractor fails – any disruption in care could be devastating.

What did the Legislature get wrong? Prevention. Or rather, not enough of it.

Texas failed to significantly expand evidence-based child abuse prevention funds. Family support home visiting received a bump totaling $8.8 million, bringing total Texas investment in proven home visiting programs to a mere 2% of the total budget. That ratio will only lead to more children flowing into CPS, increasing legal, medical and educational costs to taxpayers. Home visiting programs like Nurse-Family Partnership are proven to reduce maltreatment.

Given Governor Abbott’s declared priority to prevent abuse, his veto of Rep. Tan Parker’s HB 1342 – the only bill requiring public school students to receive self-protection training against sexual predators – is perplexing. He argued for a parental “opt-out,” seemingly confusing self-defense with sex education.

Opt-out gives sexually abusive adults a loophole, preventing children from understanding what is happening and how to stop it. Parental rights are paramount, but child sexual abuse is a unique circumstance that devastates children for a lifetime. Ninety percent is committed by a family member or someone the child knows. The Governor clearly misunderstood the bill.

Much work remains. Ultimately, we must view the 85th Legislature as a starting point. No one will remember 2017 as the year child maltreatment was conquered in Texas … but it may be remembered as the year an earnest conquest began.

Madeline McClure is founding CEO of TexProtects, the Texas Association for the Protection of Children. www.TexProtects.org

Posted on June 27, 2017.