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Op-Ed: Foster children are collateral damage as capacity concerns continue

Recently, we have been reading about foster children sleeping in Child Protective Services offices as if sleeping in offices is our child welfare crisis. Sleeping in CPS offices is a symptom of the real crisis which is that today 524 children don’t have foster care placements. This shortage of placements is a symptom of even deeper and more complex challenges that put the entire foster care system, which cares for 30,000 children, at risk of cratering. Many factors have led us to these dire circumstances.

First, the Texas foster care system has been the subject of litigation since 2011, alleging violations of children’s rights. The case is before federal Judge Janice Graham Jack, who ruled that Texas was in fact violating children’s rights in foster care by subjecting them to abuse, overmedication and repeated placements.

The system needed reform, and although well-intentioned, there have been many unintended consequences resulting from Judge Jack’s orders.

For example, additional regulations ordered by the judge have resulted in increased citations for infractions, some minor, with little to no due process. While such citations are meant to improve safety, it has not been transparent as to how providers can remedy such infractions. These regulations have driven up costs, with the expectation that the state will continue to pick up the ever-increasing tab. Meanwhile, it has shifted provider attention away from providing quality care, the intent of the lawsuit, to chasing the ever-changing and elusive paper tiger of compliance.

As a result, several providers of poorer quality have been rightfully shutdown, but we also are losing much of the existing quality capacity that was insufficient to begin with.

Concurrently, the Legislature is moving ahead with privatizing the foster care system, known as “community-based care,” in which the state pays regional private entities to administer foster care instead of the state. Given this environment, entities that receive contracts may not receive sufficient reimbursement to care for children, cover costs, and absorb the regulatory risk. We must be prepared for the worst and question what the alternative will be if this is not successful.

We cannot keep pointing fingers at who is to blame for the situation we are in because of our collective inability to solve the problem. Immediate action is needed.

First, the Legislature needs to move swiftly and approve the $90 million proposal in front of them for FY2022-2023 to increase payments to foster care providers by 10%. However, $90 million a year will not be nearly sufficient to bridge the gap between payment and cost of care needed to reach quality or increase the number of beds. The current rate structure is significantly outdated dating back to the 1980s. Additional beds need to be generated quickly, relying upon approved relatives, and provided monetary assistance equal to foster care providers who are currently reimbursed at twice the rate for a placement. This needs the Legislature’s approval. Local governments can play a role in providing funding through the American Rescue Plan relief dollars. It’s their equal responsibility to care for children in their community. And there must be a clear, documented path forward to achieve capacity, quality, and due process for providers agreed upon the Governor and Judge, implemented in partnership with the Department of Family and Protective Services and the Health and Human Services Commission, with all relevant parties and stakeholders at the table. The vision is for all children to be safe at home. But when taken into state care, we must provide a safe haven that prevents additional trauma. We can’t let politics prevent us from doing better for our children. We besiege all stakeholders, regardless of diverse opinions, to come together and immediately address this crisis on behalf of our most vulnerable children; we cannot let them be collateral damage.

Sophie Phillips is the Chief Executive Officer for TexProtects, the only nonprofit and nonpartisan advocacy organization in Texas focused solely on the issue of child abuse and neglect prevention.

Posted on August 28, 2021.

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