Sunset Recommendation to Transfer Family Support Programs to DFPS is Off the Mark

The break between legislative sessions is supposed to be a slower time for state policy, but work on children’s issues has continued fast and furious.One recent development that raises concerns is the Sunset staff recommendation to transfer four family support programs to the Department of Family Protective Services (DFPS). DFPS is not the right agency to house these programs for a number of reasons: DFPS has demonstrated that prevention programs like these are not a priority for the agency; the agency is too overwhelmed with its current responsibilities; and the transfer would unintentionally discourage parents from participating because DFPS is often viewed as a punitive, stigmatizing agency.

The Sunset Advisory Commission, which conducts regular assessments of the continuing need for state agencies to exist, is looking at all Texas health and human services agencies. The 12-member Sunset Advisory Commission, composed of legislators and two public members, uses this information to make recommendations to the full Legislature. You can find agency self-evaluations and the Sunset staff’s recommendations for all agencies here. (For more about the Sunset process, check out this presentation shared with our Hogg Foundation Mental Health Policy Academy members, plus this timeline of the biennial public policy cycle.)

In its evaluation of DFPS, the Sunset staff offers many important recommendations for how to improve DFPS’s prevention efforts. However, Sunset report staff recommends that several critical family programs in the state be transferred to DFPS. Two are currently housed at HHSC: the Texas Nurse Family Partnership and the federally funded Texas Home Visiting Program. The other two, both substance abuse and prevention and treatment programs, are part of DSHS: the Pregnant Post-Partum Intervention (PPI) and Parenting Awareness and Drug Risk Education (PADRE) programs. Like many providers, we do not agree with these recommendations and are concerned that transferring these vital programs to DFPS would have long-lasting, negative repercussions for Texas families. Here’s the testimony that Alice Bufkin and Ashley Harris presented to the Sunset Commission regarding our concerns.

The Sunset staff report highlights substantial challenges DFPS must overcome to strengthen its current prevention and early intervention programs, including weaknesses in DFPS’s prevention efforts; its lack of a unified, consistent strategy for prevention services; its inadequate use of data to inform its decisions and demonstrate outcomes to the Legislature and the public; and its historic emphasis on prevention as a contracting function rather than as a true program within DFPS. It’s clear that the Department is not positioned to lead home visiting, PPI, or PADRE programs. The challenges noted by Sunset staff will be further exacerbated by additional programming not previously managed by DFPS, and disrupt many of the long-standing linkages with other programs within DSHS and HHSC.

DFPS is also struggling to carry out its current core responsibility, particularly within its Child Protective Service. An increase in child deaths in the foster care system has raised questions from the Legislature and prompted the Speaker of the House to form a special committee to review child protection. A recent review by an independent consulting firm resulted in a laundry list of suggested improvements for the agency. Agency staff work hard to do the best they can with the limited funding they receive from the Legislature, but they are too overwhelmed right now to take on additional responsibilities.

DFPS is also poorly suited to take on these programs because, as providers often report, many Texas families are wary of the agency. Dominated by CPS, DFPS is often seen as a punitive agency that arrives when parents have done something wrong, and may even take their children away. The stigma associated with DFPS involvement would likely discourage participation in the programs if they are transferred to DFPS.

Unlike DFPS, HHSC is able to facilitate the holistic approach of Texas home visiting programs, which target a range of domains, including child and maternal health, school readiness, child development, and child abuse and neglect. With its expertise and content knowledge regarding substance use disorders (SUDs) and other related behavioral health concerns, DSHS remains best suited to house PPI and PADRE. Both HHSC and DSHS have worked to integrate the services within their agencies, leading to increased efficiency and ensuring that clients receive appropriate and coordinated services.

Also, as noted in the Sunset report, DFPS’s historic de-prioritization of prevention efforts in the face of other budget demands could leave home visiting and substance abuse prevention and intervention programs vulnerable under the agency’s administration. Ideally, DFPS will continue improving its current prevention efforts, as the Sunset report recommends, but uncertainty remains regarding how DFPS will react to future budgetary pressures on its prevention programs.

Given these challenges, it is critical to let members of the Sunset Advisory Commission know how these recommendations would negatively impact Texas families. On August 13, 2014, the members of the Sunset Advisory Commission will vote on recommendations outlined in the Sunset report. If you have concerns about these programs transitioning to DFPS, take a moment and contact the members of the Sunset Commission and share your concerns with them.