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January 19, 2017 by Robert Franklin, Esq, Member, National Board of Directors, National Parents Organization

The Texas Legislature convened last week and that means reforms to the state’s child protective system will be on the agenda. Here’s a good article on what to expect (Texas Tribune, 1/14/17).

Perhaps the most remarkable thing about the impending reforms is how long it took for lawmakers to acknowledge the need for them and how many people had to suffer in the process. After all, we’ve known for years that Child Protective Services was as dysfunctional as an organization can be, with stratospheric levels of employee turnover from the lowliest caseworker all the way up to directors and top management. And the press has chronicled the count of injured and deceased kids, jailed parents and foster parents, and incompetent measures supposedly aimed at reform. Finally, a federal lawsuit that resulted in the most scathing opinion by Corpus Christi Judge Janis Jack pointing out, among other things that kids typically exit the Texas foster system in worse shape than they went in.

Yes, it took all that for the Legislature to grudgingly decide to actually spend some additional funds to try to make things right. It’s not like the lawmakers had a choice. After all, it is within Jack’s power to simply order changes and the state to fund them. Now, this being Texas, state lawmakers would typically bridle at such an exercise of power over the state by an employee of Washington, but the core issue is children, many of whom are forced to endure the most outrageous conditions while in the state’s “care.” Texas legislators have never registered very high on the brain scale, but even they can imagine the headlines as diligent reporters rake over the latest child tragedy that should have been prevented by CPS, but wasn’t. Such stories reported against a backdrop of legislative recalcitrance and pinch-penny attitudes could easily be seen by voters as less than savory, and so, at long last, the Lone Star state appears ready to act to better protect its most vulnerable residents.

First and foremost, it’s already been announced that CPS caseworkers will receive a $12,000 per year increase to their current salaries. That’s not insubstantial and should go a long way toward attracting new, quality caseworkers and retaining existing ones. If there’s one thing that needed doing to improve CPS performance, that’s it. For years, caseworker turnover has been far too high and caseloads far too large. Both should immediately begin to change for the better with children at risk of harm being the primary beneficiaries. So far, so good. But…

The Legislative Budget Board authorized those expenditures, but the Legislature just went into session and has yet to vote the funds. And this year, the state’s government will have less to spend than usual.

Legislators received a grim report on Monday that they will have $104.87 billion in state funds for the two-year budget, a 2.7 percent decrease from 2015.

Will CPS get the money it so desperately needs? Stay tuned. That vote will be one of the biggest stories of the session.

Meanwhile, Judge Jack is breathing down the necks of state elected officials, and promises to continue doing so.

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton and legislators are adamant that the state does not need federal oversight to overhaul the Department of Family and Protective Services.

But a report released Nov. 4 by "special masters" who have been tasked with evaluating the agency made a number of recommendations. Those include decreasing CPS worker caseloads and turnover rates in the agency, improving training, managing and mentorship opportunities for new hires and building up skills for children aging out of the program. In December, Jack ordered the state to stop allowing foster children to be placed in group homes without 24-hour supervision. Jack said in an order on Jan. 9 that the special masters' recommendations for Texas "require additional information gathering, input, and supervision by the Court."

In other words, Jack will be keeping an eye on what the state does and doesn’t do and will exercise her own judgment (informed by the special masters) about whether it’s sufficient to discharge the state’s obligations to kids under federal civil rights laws. If the Legislature fails, consider a donnybrook between avowed states’ rights elected officials and a federal judge inevitable.

Finally, lawmakers see the writing on the wall and are falling all over themselves to be seen to be “proactive” at protecting kids. That means they’re filing bills to address agency deficiencies.

The phrase “foster care” appears in 18 filed bills in the House and Senate so far, according to the Texas Legislature Online website. Sen. Jane Nelson, R- Flower Mound, chairwoman of the Senate Finance Committee, Sen. Charles Schwertner, R-Georgetown, chairman of the Senate Finance Committee’s Workgroup on Child Protection and Sen. Carlos Uresti, D-San Antonio, jointly filed Senate Bill 11, which would mean a massive overhaul for foster care.

Changes under the bill would include reviewing and extending retention of abuse and neglect records, requiring CPS special investigators to see residential child care facilities abuse victims within three days, implementing benchmarks, funding incentives and consequences for foster care contractors and collaborating with universities to evaluate prevention programs. Patrick has designated S.B. 11 as one of his legislative priorities.

Other bills filed propose giving more financial assistance to caregivers, quicker medical and mental health assessments for children entering the foster care system, establishing county boards to oversee CPS services and tracking repeated child abuse and neglect reports.

Keep in mind that the Tribune article was published on January 14th and the legislative session only began on the 10th. That’s a maximum of three days in which bills could be filed. So we can expect many more bills that contain the phrase “foster care.”

That may be all well and good. Or it may be that legislators want to appear to constituents to be doing something about the problem when in fact they may just be piling more legislative mandates on already overworked and underpaid CPS employees. One of the astonishing findings three years ago by an independent audit of CPS by the Stephen Group was that caseworkers already spend by far the majority of their time filling out paperwork as opposed to seeing families and kids. Will this legislative session make that situation worse?

All of course will be made clear in the fullness of time. Then we’ll have a better idea of whether the government of Texas cares as much about children as it does about tight budgets.

 

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National Parents Organization is a non-profit that educates the public, families, educators, and legislators about the importance of shared parenting and how it can reduce conflict in children, parents, and extended families. Along with Shared Parenting we advocate for fair Child Support and Alimony Legislation. Want to get involved?  Here’s how:

Together, we can drive home the family, child development, social and national benefits of shared parenting, and fair child support and alimony. Thank you for your activism.

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