As advocates for Texas children, we’re excited to see momentum at the Texas Legislature for supporting kids in schools through a boost in overall funding, full-day pre-k, and student mental health efforts.
But so far, we’re not seeing a lot of progress at the Legislature for supporting those same kids when they’re outside of school, including when they are involved with Child Protective Services (CPS).
Two years ago, we applauded the Legislature for taking some important first steps to strengthen CPS and make sure more kids were safe and supported. For example, in 2017, lawmakers invested in a significant pay raise for child abuse investigators, which cut down on staff turnover and investigation delays that endangered kids; they put standards in place to quickly check on the medical needs of kids entering foster care; and they worked to reform the entire child welfare system through Community Based Care.
Those were important steps, but we and others also made clear that much more work was needed.
Yet, this year, the Legislature is on track to embrace the unacceptable status quo for CPS — or maybe even backslide on the progress we’ve made. The budget bills passed by the House and Senate largely maintain the status quo for CPS even though CPS leaders asked the Legislature for an additional $324 million to cover critical child protection priorities. In legislative discussions, state leaders have largely ignored the opportunities and challenges presented by the new federal Family First Prevention Services Act (FFPSA). And bills to move the ball forward for kids in foster care are still waiting for a hearing at the beginning of May, while Committees have held hearings on bills that would make it harder to protect kids who face imminent danger from abuse of neglect.
There are three particular areas of concern:
Supporting at-risk families to try to keep more children safe with their own parents rather than entering foster care.
Data show that teen parents in foster care, as well as parents with substance use challenges, are at particularly high risk to have their children removed by CPS. On April 16, the Legislature held hearings on two bills to support pregnant and parenting youth in foster care. Both bills were were well-supported, with over 30 witnesses registering in favor of each and no one registering against them. The Committee approved HB 475 and recommended it for the House Local and Consent Calendar (a potential fast track process for bills deemed uncontroversial), but HB 474 has been left languishing in Committee. Lawmakers will have to move fast to get either through the process before the upcoming legislative deadlines.
The Legislature could also be doing more to support families when a parent is using drugs or alcohol. The House budget included $50 million to increase community-based substance use treatment across the state, but the Senate budget ignored this pressing need. Senator Perry’s SB 195 has the potential to help the state identify areas where the state should work to increase substance use treatment options, but the bill as filed and the committee substitute do not include recommended changes that would help the state use the data to target services where they are needed most.
This session, funding is woefully lacking for primary prevention programs that could prevent families from ever becoming involved with the child welfare system. But there is strong evidence showing these programs improve outcomes for children and families and provide a strong return on investment over time. Although DFPS asked for $30 million to expand prevention programs across Texas, the House budget only adopted $7.2 million, which will help expand just 2 of the 8 effective prevention and early intervention programs at DFPS. Prevention fared even worse in the Senate, which only adopted $2 million.
Additionally, the FFPSA will soon provide Texas a chance to draw down federal funding to support family preservation, but the Legislature and DFPS have taken very few steps this session to get ready to seize this opportunity. SB 355 by Senator West and HB 3950 by Representative Frank have some provisions that would help the state plan for implementing FFPSA. SB 355 was just set for hearing in the House Human Service Committee, and HB 3950 is currently up for third reading on the House floor. However, Texas leaders need to be doing more as the state will have one month from the beginning of the 2022 fiscal year to the date the FFPSA takes effect in Texas (October 1, 2021) to make any actual changes that will require state investment.
Rather than focusing on supporting families, the Committee hearings at the Legislature have focused more on bills that would make it harder to save a child’s life rather than place them in foster care. Last year, more than 90 Texas children died of abuse, the highest number in six years. These 92 tragedies — the loss of these 92 precious lives — should motivate lawmakers to work even harder to save children’s lives. We are hopeful that these bills will not go any further in the legislative process and will not resurface next session. You can expect to hear more from us about these bills if they start moving. But the bills and the discussion in the Committees reflect a worrisome and apparently growing school of thought that it’s in the best interest of families if Texas weakens its child protection laws. We disagree.
Keeping kids safe if they do enter foster care.
The state Ombudsman report from late last year is just the latest evidence that many children in Texas foster care are not safe — a point previously made in disturbing detail in testimony in federal court.
Not only are there safety concerns, but youth in foster care also need greater support to heal, thrive, and succeed. Too many children in Texas foster care become teen parents, homeless, drop out of school, or face other serious challenges.
A handful of bills are getting some traction, like SB 1535 by Senator Menendez, which would strengthen the role of the Ombudsman in keep kids in foster care safe and HB 1362 by Representative Wu, which would help DFPS study CPS caseloads. SB 781 by Senator Kolkhorst also showed promise in improving safety for children in foster care facilities. However, the bill could still be strengthened by adding provision to help Texas properly implement the Family First Prevention Services Act and enhance oversight of Residential Treatment Centers.
So far, the Legislature is not stepping up to support these youth by significantly reducing the caseloads of foster care caseworkers, strengthening monitoring and oversight of licensed foster homes and facilities, or improving the state’s data system — all areas where the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals held Texas liable for violating the constitutional rights of children in foster care.
Ensuring children in foster care are thriving.
Two areas that should get more attention this session — but haven’t — were building a trauma-informed child welfare system and strengthening services and supports for older youth in foster care.
HB 1536 by Representative Miller would expand trauma-informed care across the Texas child welfare system. The bill is currently stuck in the House Calendars Committee.
SB 480 by Senator Watson includes several recommendations to improve services for transition-aged youth that came from the SB 1758 report that the Legislature commissioned last session. However, this bill still hasn’t received a hearing. Two good, but not as comprehensive, bills (HB 123 and HB 53) passed the House, but have been waiting weeks for a hearing in the Senate.
As the Legislature gets ready to wrap up on May 27th, and policy discussions about child protection and foster care continue after the legislative session, we urge state leaders to recommit to protecting kids, strengthening CPS, and improving our foster care system.