Last week, the newly-formed House Select Committee on Child Protection convened for the first time to discuss how to improve the state's foster care system. The committee was created in the spring by Texas House Speaker Joe Straus, and is chaired by Austin Democrat Dawnna Dukes.
The House Select committee is working to examine how to improve Child Protective Services in light of a recent spike in foster care abuse and deaths. In 2013, the number of foster child deaths rose to 10, which is five times more than the previous year. Just days after the committee meeting, the need for foster care oversight was tragically reinforced as two foster children in Georgetown drowned. Georgetown police are investigating the incident, and Providence Kids, the Austin-based child-placing agency responsible for placing the two children, has had its placements suspended.
It's important to note that these deaths are not just deaths from child abuse, which are of course tragic. These are foster children, who were removed from their parents to keep them safe, and then died in these new homes. The deaths highlight the severe problems with the state's chronically underfunded Department of Family and Protective Services (DFPS) and the foster care system.
Read more about the challenges facing the state's foster care system after the jump. In response to the deaths of the two young foster children in Georgetown, the advocacy organization Texans Care for Children released the following statement. Said Child Welfare Policy Associate Ashley Harris:
“We are deeply saddened by the loss of these young children. We're still learning the details of this heartbreaking case, but we know that Texas needs stronger statewide standards for screening and training foster parents. Too often children go through the trauma of abuse and removal from their parents, only to have the state place them in a foster home where they are again abused or dangerously neglected. Certainly the state shouldn't push further privatization under Foster Care Redesign until better safety standards are in place. Texas can also prevent more deaths and abuse in foster care by reducing the number of vulnerable kids each CPS caseworker is assigned to monitor at any given moment. It's hard for CPS caseworkers to spot every red flag when they are trying to protect 28 kids at once.”
Foster care deaths are just one part of the larger problem. Abuse is also rampant within the foster care system. As Dr. Katherine Barillas, The Director of Child Welfare Policy at the non-profit One Voice Texas noted, “I have not met one alumni of the foster care system who has not been sexually or physically abused either by their caregiver or other children.”
Texans Care for Children has reported on many of the issues plaguing the foster care system, and has released several recommendations to help address them. One is requiring the private contractors who manage 90% of the foster care system to re-screen foster homes each year. Other recommendations include establishing statewide standards for home screening, and increasing the minimum number of required hours of foster parent training up from the current eight.
The most important recommendation is to increase statwide funding for CPS. Texas CPS caseworkers are currently some of the most overworked in the nation. National best practices recommend that caseworkers take on no more than 17 children–in 2013, Texas caseworkers were handling an average of double that, 32 children each. The 2014-2015 budget includes slightly more funding for CPS, but they will still have to take on an estimated 28 cases each, which is far too many for one caseworker to handle. When this happens, it's impossible for caseworkers to devote the time needed to each child, and this can lead to children tragically falling through the cracks.
Putting these measures in placec is crucial, and it should take place before the state proceeds with its Foster Care Redesign privatization program. As we reported last year, the program will increase the privatization of the state's foster care system. This is dangerous because private companies are not subject to the same oversight as public agencies. This was proven during an earlier attempt at privatization in 2012, which was abruptly halted after it was discovered the company had a history of placing children in homes where they faced humiliation and physical abuse. The current privatization program is also facing problems, such as placing fewer children into foster homes and being $2 million overbudget.
Fixing the state's foster care system is certainly a daunting task, but it is possible. CPS caseworkers are good people trying to do their best to help children within a broken system. Because of the structural challenges and chronic lack of funding, it's increasingly difficult for them to give children the help they need. Until the state steps up to give CPS adequate funding, Texas kids are the ones who will continue to suffer.