March 12 was the deadline to file bills at the Texas Legislature. For people who earn their livings in and around the Capitol, it’s a minor holiday. There’s a flurry of activity as staff work to finalize their boss’ legislative packages and lobbyists race to find sponsors for the remaining bills in their portfolios before time runs out. No one is paying attention to anything else outside the pink granite walls of the Capitol.
It’s a perfect time for agencies to release news they’d prefer go unnoticed.
Case-in-point: Late the night before bill filing deadline, the Department of Family and Protective Services (DFPS) quietly published a long-awaited evaluation of its performance rolling out the new community-based model for foster care. The evaluation, which was ordered by the Legislature and conducted by Texas Tech University, concluded that the department was mishandling the transfer of foster care responsibilities to local communities and undermining the success of the state’s child welfare reform efforts.
Among the evaluation’s findings was that the department’s efforts to implement community-based care lacked a clear strategic framework and suffered from “processes that were random, chaotic, and trial-and-error.”
Improving the Texas foster care system is of utmost importance. Rather than allowing this report to fly under the radar, the Legislature should take it seriously and enact its recommendations to make the Texas foster care system safer and more responsive to the needs of children.
The community-based model of foster care was created by the Legislature in 2017 in response to an ongoing federal lawsuit, M.D. v. Abbott, which alleged that the state systematically subjected children in the permanent care of DFPS to an unreasonable risk of harm. One of the primary goals of this reform was to addresses the deficiencies brought to light by the lawsuit by transferring primary responsibility for their care to local non-profit charitable organizations operating under contract with the state.
Currently, 6,480 children—roughly 21% of the state’s foster care population—are being served in one of the four active community-based care regions. In these regions, the model is doing exactly what it was designed to do. Local providers are achieving positive gains in key outcomes including child safety, placement stability, and placement in the least restrictive setting. As the evaluation points out, these improvements are being achieved in spite of the department’s mismanagement of implementation.
Any successful entrepreneur will tell you the importance of being willing to learn and adapt. Initial plans almost always change based on data and experience gained through actually doing the work. It’s been four years since the Legislature created community-based care, and we’ve learned a great deal in that time. Rather than attempting to bury a report that highlights areas for improvement, the department should be embracing the evaluation and putting together a plan to incorporate its recommendations into the next phase of community-based care.
We’re glad to see that Sen. Lois Kolkhorst, who chairs the Senate Health and Human Services Committee, recently filed SB 1896, which makes a number of necessary improvements to state programs for children.
Among the improvements it makes is taking responsibility for overseeing the rollout of community-based care away from DFPS and transferring it to the Health and Human Services Commission. This is a commonsense move that recognizes that agencies should not be allowed to evaluate themselves or oversee reductions in their authority. Moreover, it improves oversight and accountability by housing these functions in an independent organization that is not in direct competition with the new providers.
Another example is HB 3691 by Rep. James Frank, the chairman of the House Human Services Committee. This bill incorporates many of the lessons learned by the community-based providers who are operating under the new foster care model. It also addresses the inconsistencies in DFPS’s implementation of community-based care highlighted in the evaluation report by making changes to the enacting statute to ensure that consistent, predictable standards are applied moving forward.
Community-based care is the solution to the systemic problems that have plagued the Texas foster care system over the last decade. The 87th Legislature has a unique opportunity to finish the work it started in 2017 and make Texas a model for successful child welfare reform. Lawmakers must seize it.