This commentary originally appeared in the Dallas Morning News.
The Texas Legislature and governor deserve a round of applause for their work during the recent legislative session to strengthen Child Protective Services, keep kids safe, and ensure more kids thrive after they enter foster care. The applause should be loud, but make it quick because there's a lot more work to do.
Last year, it became abundantly clear that there was a crisis. Media reports put a spotlight on tragically slow investigations of abuse, children sleeping in CPS offices, and other concerns. After years of reviewing evidence and testimony in a class action lawsuit against the state foster care system, the federal court released its initial ruling. The horror stories documented in the ruling made it clear that Texas leaders didn't just have a legal obligation to act, but also a moral obligation. Legislative leaders asked the commissioner of the Department of Family and Protective Services what he needed, and he had the courage to tell them.
State leaders responded, first in December and then again in the legislative session, with a major boost in funding to stabilize the CPS workforce. The latest statistics show that the investment is already paying off for kids. With caseworker turnover and caseloads declining, endangered kids aren't waiting as long for caseworkers to check on them.
The Legislature also increased funding to bring more foster homes and services on line. Additionally, lawmakers passed bills to thoughtfully expand community-based foster care; improve oversight of homes serving kids in foster care; provide more support for grandparents and others who take in young relatives from unsafe homes; prepare older youth for life after they leave foster care; and other reforms. These investments and policy changes should make the system safer and better for kids.
But a closer look at this session makes it clear that there is still unfinished business.
The Legislature did not pass any bills aimed at finding emergency placements for children who are stuck sleeping in CPS offices. Some of the efforts this session will ultimately lead to better placement options for these kids, but not for several years.
Kids sleeping in CPS offices is just one of the issues that the federal court flagged and that legislators unsuccessfully tried to address this session. Additionally, legislators tried to require children to have legal representation for the duration of their time in care, but the measure came up short this session. Lawmakers also attempted to ensure that health care for foster kids is consistent with the guidelines from the American Academy of Pediatrics, but they didn't quite get the job done.
Similarly, the big funding hike provided by the Legislature only covered about half of the increase that CPS said was necessary to keep kids safe. In fact, because past Legislatures underfunded CPS so severely, the additional appropriation this session still leaves the state far below the national average for per capita child welfare funding.
With so much on the Legislature's plate this session, other needed improvements recommended by the federal court didn't even make it onto the agenda. Examples include improving the CPS data system and ensuring children in foster care get to meet with their main advocates — caseworkers — at least once each month.
In addition to addressing this unfinished business, state officials will have to closely monitor the implementation of bills passed this session. The federal judge and many stakeholders essentially stamped proceed with caution on the effort to expand of community-based foster care, for example, highlighting the need to keep a watchful eye on the roll out. Other bills passed this session may undermine support for kids. One may steer more young foster children to group cottage homes rather than foster families, while another allows faith-based foster care providers receiving state funds to deny needed services to children.
State leaders should be ready to undo any measures that wind up hurting children and prepare to build on the important progress they made this session, especially after the federal court issues its final order. Thank your legislators for their efforts, but remember that years of deep, systemic challenges can't be resolved in a single 140-day legislative session.
Kate Murphy is Senior Policy Associate with Texans Care for Children.