Liberty Hamilton describes her time in foster care as “the most traumatic experience I ever had.” Her foster mother abused alcohol and drugs, she told a Texas Senate Committee on Monday.

“She would always leave pipes lying around that she used to smoke,” she said. “She would party all night with loud music and random guys. She would say they were just business partners.”

Liberty contrasted her experience in the custody of the state with her life prior to being removed from her family. “I know my mom struggled with addiction, but I was always in a clean home with clean clothes […] I was never hungry, made good grades, involved in sports, and my mom never missed a game.”

Other former foster children testified before the Senate committee, with similar stories. More than a decade after being sued in federal court for operating a system that routinely placed children at an unacceptable risk of harm, the Texas foster care system still struggles. The state remains under the lawsuit, racking up millions in court fees and fines, related to the Department of Family and Protective Services’ failure to meet the court’s remedial orders.

On top of the existing problems, a new crisis recently emerged with the state losing thousands of licensed foster placements and an exodus of providers. This crisis fueled a dramatic spike in the number of children who enter the foster care system with no place to go. These children, known as Children Without Placement (or CWOP), are spending nights sleeping in hotel rooms and unlicensed temporary shelters. These types of arrangements are meant to be a last resort reserved for emergency situations. Unfortunately, it’s become the norm for a lot of children.

Between August 2020 and July 2021, the number of children without placements skyrocketed from 47 to 416. That’s a 785% increase. Although the number of CWOP incidents are beginning to come down, this most recent crisis is yet another symptom of a failing bureaucracy in dire need of comprehensive reform.

The issues plaguing our child welfare system are persisting despite the Herculean efforts by the Legislature and governor’s office. After the judge in the federal lawsuit issued her remedial orders in 2015, Gov. Greg Abbott made foster care reform an emergency item for the 85th Legislature and subsequent special sessions have been called to address the problems within the system. The Legislature stepped up and responded incredibly beginning in 2017, when it passed a fundamental reorganization of our state’s foster care system.

This reorganization, known as community-based care, transfers primary responsibility for caring for and managing children in the state’s foster care system to local nonprofit organizations. It decentralizes the state bureaucracy and gives local communities more say in what happens to their most vulnerable children.

Today, four regions of the state are operating under the community-based care model and four more are scheduled to launch by the end of 2023. Beyond community-based care, the Legislature has enacted comprehensive reforms of virtually every aspect of our state’s child welfare system. These reforms include measures to reduce removals of children by prioritizing family strengthening and preservation, prohibiting DFPS from housing children in state offices, providing caseworkers with more tools to reduce the length of time children stay in foster care, targeted appropriations, and structural reforms to the department itself.

A great deal of time, effort, and taxpayer resources have been spent on fixing the Texas foster care system. But while these efforts have borne some fruit, system transformation has been frustratingly slow at times, and much more work is left before us.

Recently, the Texas Public Policy Foundation launched the Right for Families campaign and associated Liberty Action Agenda items in anticipation of the upcoming legislative session convening in January 2023. This campaign will be working to enact public policy solutions that promote free and flourishing families so that they are able to reach their full potential, and to recognize the nuclear family as the foundational unit of human prosperity.

Some of the issues we work on include reforming the foster care licensing and regulatory environment to ensure that no Texas child enters the system without a safe supportive home to live in, expanding community based care to more regions throughout the state, expanding service options for families who are required to complete certain services as a precondition to being reunited, and reforming CPS reporting laws to eliminate false and malicious reports that harm innocent families and waste taxpayer resources.

I hope you’ll join me and the Foundation in our efforts to continue reforming the foster care system in ways that recognize the relationship between a parent and child is one of the most unique and important institutions in history. By promoting strong, healthy families, we can ensure a strong, healthy Texas for generations to come.