Racial Justice Requires Improvements to the Texas CPS System

Update: On October 1, 2020, DFPS released a new report on disparities and disproportionality in the Texas child welfare system.

Sometimes, to save children’s lives and protect their safety, Child Protective Services (CPS) must remove them from unsafe homes. However, we also know that removals are deeply traumatic and disruptive for kids and parents. So it’s also critically important to avoid removing children from their homes and placing them in foster care if there is a way to keep them safe with their parents, and it’s important to reunite kids and their parents quickly if it can be done safely.


Further, we know that Texas faces urgent, well-documented challenges that make it harder to ensure that children who do enter foster care are safe and supported. The federal courts have found that the risk of sexual abuse and other safety concerns in the state’s foster care system violates the U.S. Constitution. A recent federal court hearing highlighted incidences of children dying in foster care that the plaintiffs and court monitors argued may have been prevented if CPS and Residential Child Care Licensing at the Health and Human Services Commission (HHSC) had corrected long-standing oversight deficiencies.

These challenges in the CPS system affect Texas children and families of all racial/ethnic backgrounds.

But Black children and families face the greatest risks under the current CPS system in Texas. A look at the data and the experiences of Texas kids makes clear that improving the CPS system is a critical step to address racial injustice and disparities in Texas.

Data Show Concerning Levels of Racial Disproportionality in the Texas CPS System, Particularly in Austin and Some Other Large Cities

According to state data for 2019, Black children are vastly overrepresented at every stage of the Texas child welfare system. Black children account for 11 percent of the state’s child population but 18 percent of reports to CPS, 20 percent of CPS investigations, and 20 percent of the children who are removed from their families and placed in foster care. Compared to White and Hispanic children, Black children are much more likely to be removed by CPS: out of every 1,000 Black children in Texas, 4.3 were removed from their families in 2019, compared to just 2.5 for White children and 1.9 Hispanic children, according to the state data. 

Among the state’s largest counties, Travis County has the highest rates of racial disproportionality in the CPS system, although Dallas, El Paso, Harris, and Tarrant counties also have particularly disturbing rates of overrepresentation in the system. In Travis County, Black children account for 7 percent of the child population but a stunning 27 percent of removals, according to the same state data. Further, we found in our maternal health policy research that CPS’ disproportionate removal of kids from Black families is one reason that many Central Texas moms are scared of asking for help for mental health and substance use when they need it. In Dallas and Harris counties, Black children make up 21 percent and 17 percent of the child population, respectively, but 48 percent of removals in each county.

Once Black children enter foster care in Texas, they are somewhat more likely than other children to have experiences that are associated with worse outcomes. Black children stay in Texas foster care two months longer than White children, on average. In Texas foster care, 68 percent of older Black youth have three or more placements — meaning more instability — compared to 63 percent of older White youth. In Texas, 69 percent of older Black youth will age out of care instead of finding a permanent home, compared to 63 percent of all older youth in care. Addressing the disparities in experiences within foster care, DFPS wrote in 2006 that, “in Texas, even when other factors are taken into account, African American children spent significantly more time in substitute care, were less likely to be reunified with their families, were less likely than Anglo children to be permanently placed with relatives as were Hispanic children, and waited longer for adoption than Anglo or Hispanic children.”

The Reasons for Disproportionality are Difficult to Untangle, But Research in Texas Suggests White Families Receive More Leeway Than Black Families

Children of all races who live in poverty are much more likely to be removed by CPS compared to other children. In fact, more than 60 percent of child removals in Texas in 2004 and 2005 involved families with annual incomes of about $10,000 or less. The high poverty rate among Black families — the product of past and present discrimination in housing, employment, education, and more — correlates to the high removal rate among Black families. According to research by UT-Austin’s Stephanie L. Rivaux, former DFPS Assistant Commissioner Joyce James and others, some studies have found that race does not predict child welfare decisions when controlling for other factors (such as poverty, maltreatment history, and neighborhood crime level), while other studies “find that race is a predictor of placement in and exit from foster care even when other factors are taken into account.”

Research in Texas suggests that race is a factor pushing Black children deeper into the CPS system, even after controlling for poverty and the CPS’ assessment of individual kids’ risk of abuse and neglect of individual kids. Rivaux, James, and the other researchers analyzed over 100,000 Texas CPS cases in the mid-2000s. One of the decision points they analyzed was whether the state removed children from their family or kept the family together while providing them with support services. They found that “even when controlling for risk, poverty, and other relevant factors, race affects the decisions to provide services and to remove.” 

In particular, the researchers found that at different stages of the Texas CPS system, caseworkers, judges, and other decision-makers appeared to accept higher levels of risk for White children compared to Black children in the same income bracket when making decisions, such as whether to remove a child from their home or offer family preservation services. Rivaux and her team used mean “risk scores,” as determined by CPS, to compare children in similar income brackets. They found that low-income Black children who were removed from their families had lower average risk scores than low-income White children who were removed from their families, suggesting that some higher-risk White families were given an opportunity to stay together and receive support services while similar Black families had their children removed. The researchers found a similar gap between White and Black families’ risk scores, in both the low-income and high-income categories, among families whose investigations were closed and those who received family support services. The report concluded, “the risk threshold for more intrusive case decisions is higher for Anglo Americans than for African Americans.”

State and Local Leaders Must Improve the CPS System Overall and Specifically Target the Overrepresentation of Black Children at Each Stage of the System

In many cases, solutions must directly target disparities and disproportionality in the CPS system. For example, state and local leaders should require additional training on implicit biases for mandatory reporters, judges and attorneys, the CPS workforce, and other stakeholders in the CPS system and collect and scrutinize state and local data at each stage of the system. CPS should also consult with external experts to develop a strategic plan that will reduce disproportionality and disparities and will promote diversity, equity, and inclusion throughout the system. And the Legislature should reverse its decision to shut down the Office of Minority Health Statistics and Engagement, which grew out of the state’s Center for Elimination of Disproportionality and Disparities.

Texas leaders should also intentionally work to reduce disproportionality and disparities while implementing across-the-board improvements to foster care and the CPS system. For example, in the coming months, the 2018 Family First Prevention Services Act (FFPSA) offers Texas leaders an opportunity to improve foster care group homes and to draw down federal prevention funding to keep more kids safely with their families. However, while implementing policies that appear to be “race neutral,” policymakers must be mindful of the impact on racial disparities and disproportionality. For instance, if Texas expands the definition of families who are “candidates for foster care” to provide more families with FFPSA prevention services, it will be important to ensure that the policy does not unintentionally draw more Black children deeper into the CPS system.

Additionally, state and local leaders should examine policies and practices outside of the CPS system — including in local institutions that report the most cases to CPS. It’s important to ensure that local law enforcement agencies, school districts, hospitals, and other entities are not inappropriately reporting children, particularly Black children, to CPS. Additionally, racial justice issues — including the high poverty rate among Black families that correlates with CPS involvement — of course reflect larger, societal challenges that child welfare reform alone cannot address. However, CPS often is where families wind up after several other systems have failed. Keeping more children safely with their families, and reducing disproportionality and disparities in the CPS system, will require a comprehensive, cross-system approach that ensures families have the tools and resources they need to thrive.