This commentary was originally featured in the San Antonio Express-News on October 24, 2017.
Re: “San Antonio to see CPS reform,” Metro, Oct. 17:
As Express-News writer Allie Morris reported, foster care in Texas was managed by the state, but reform legislation passed this year expands community foster care by shifting responsibility to private non-profit or local government entities. Under a similar community care pilot, the Fort Worth area has dramatically improved outcomes for its kids and their families.
Now it’s Bexar County’s turn.
A 2015 federal court ruling against the state found “rape, abuse, psychotropic medication, and instability are the norm” in Texas foster care — meaning kids “uniformly leave state custody more damaged than when they entered.” Yet the problems with foster care are not new. Neither are efforts at reform. We’ve been here before.
In 2004, the Texas Comptroller uncovered the same deficiencies recently detailed by the federal judge. In response, then-Gov. Rick Perry declared child welfare reform an emergency item in the 79th Texas Legislature in 2005. Despite intense pressure from advocates and apologists of the broken state system, the 79th Legislature pressed forward, transferring the responsibility for the placement and management of foster children from the state agency to private regional administrators.
Unfortunately, within six months after Perry signed the reforms into law, two children died in foster care in separate tragedies. Not one to let a crisis go to waste, detractors of reform pounced. Although the deaths were unrelated to the reforms, they claimed the deaths portended the future under reform. The state agency immediately put privatization contracts on hold, and reform died. Unfortunately, the human toll of state-managed foster care did not stop.
As it was in the 79th Legislature, foster care reform became a focus of the 85th Legislature’s regular session. In his January 2017 State of the State Address, Gov. Abbott named foster care reform as his first emergency item. An uncanny sense of déjà vu pervaded the session, as the previous proponents and detractors of privatization lined up on either side of reform, with the latter seeking a $1.4 billion increase in agency funding without substantial reform. Again, the Legislature responded with courage, delivering the widespread reforms foster children so desperately need.
Experiences in Texas and other states that have attempted significant foster care reform show the state is at the beginning of a long, rocky implementation process. As reform bill co-sponsor Rep. James Frank (Wichita Falls) said, “Passing community-based care is just the start. Implementation is key. Results are what matter.” Meanwhile, emboldened by past success, the same critics who reversed reform in 2006 wait to use the first tragedy to claw back state control.
Hurricane Harvey demonstrated what communities working together can accomplish. Though the foster care crisis is a less visible emergency than a hurricane, the need is no less dire. As Bexar County implements community-based care, foster children and their families will need the same all-hands-on-deck attitude Texas showed after Harvey.
Texans showed that working together can deliver results bureaucracies can’t. There is no turning back.