Monitors appointed by a federal judge in connection with an ongoing lawsuit over dangerous conditions in the Texas child welfare system released a new report on the state’s progress in reforming the system. The 363-page report recounts the apparent failure of the Department of Family and Protective Services (DFPS) to make the structural and operational changes necessary to alleviate the unreasonable risk of harm faced by children in its care.
The report makes one thing clear: the time for delays and half measures in reforming the Texas child welfare system has passed.
In many ways, the current state of child welfare in Texas is a tale of two systems. One is the old, government-run system that created the problems cited in the lawsuit. The other is the new, community-based system that is working to address the failures of the old by empowering local communities to take a leading role in caring for children.
The lawsuit giving rise to the new report was filed in 2011 on behalf of a subset of the foster children who are in the permanent care of DFPS. It alleged that the department’s policies and practices exposed children to an unreasonable risk of harm while in the state’s care. This risk was particularly high for children paced in highly structured congregate care facilities. In 2015, a federal judge agreed, concluding that Texas children “almost uniformly leave custody more damaged than when they entered,” and ordering the department to take remedial action.
Responding to the deficiencies highlighted by the court’s ruling, the 85th Legislature enacted a number of reforms aimed at fixing the system and spent an additional $500 million to hire and retain caseworkers. The Legislature also recognized that a major part of the problem was structural. In a state as large and diverse as Texas, a massive centralized bureaucracy simply cannot adequately respond to the needs of children.
In light of this reality, the Legislature set in motion a fundamental overhaul of the system through a new model known as community-based care. This new model solves the problem of bureaucratic and geographic distance between children and decision-makers in Austin by expanding opportunities for local private and non-profit charities to care for and manage the cases of children in foster care in their region. Since 2017, community-based care has been rolled out in four regions of the state and is serving approximately 3,000 children, roughly 6 percent of the total foster care population.
Although implementation of community-based care is still in its early stages, data shows that it is doing exactly what it was intended to do—address the failures of the old, state-run system and improve outcomes for children. The most recent performance report shows that across all community-based care regions, 100 percent of children are safe in their foster care placements. Additionally, the model shows success in reducing reliance on institutional placements. In one region, local innovation led to a 55 percent decrease in emergency shelter utilization and a 17.5 percent decrease in placements of children in residential facilities over the course of just one year. This means more foster children are being placed with families rather than in institutions.
While the Legislature’s community-based reforms are helping right the ship, the monitors’ report shows that Texas still has a long way to go. Over the course of a 10-month investigation, monitors found that continued deficiencies in DFPS’s handling of abuse and neglect investigations, inconsistent oversight and enforcement practices, and a flawed data management system contributed to a “disjointed and dangerous child protection system.”
These findings, while deeply troubling, are helping bring about much-needed transparency and revealing what’s working and where additional reforms are needed. It’s clear that transferring responsibility for caring for children in foster care to local communities through community-based care was the right move. When the Legislature reconvenes in January, it should commit to ensuring that these effective reforms are fully implemented statewide by 2025. In addition, lawmakers must restructure the centralized DFPS bureaucracy and dramatically reduce its size. Finally, the Legislature should demand greater accountability of the department and its leadership through independent, third-party oversight of agency practices and the efficiency of its operations.
For the good of our most vulnerable children, it’s time for Texas to fully discard the old system and step boldly into a future where Texans, not a distant bureaucracy, take care of their own.