Just one day after the conclusion of the 86th Texas Legislature, Hank Whitman announced that he will be retiring as commissioner of the Department of Family and Protective Services at the end of this month. Appointed by Gov. Greg Abbott in 2016, his tenure as the head of the state’s child welfare agency was a time of important transition.
Less than a year after Whitman took the reins at DFPS, Gov. Abbott made overhauling the state’s troubled child protective system a top priority for the 2017 legislative session. The 85th Legislature responded, enacting historic reforms that transferred primary responsibility for foster care services from the centralized Austin-based bureaucracy to local communities.
The move worked. In the two years since the community-based care (CBC) model was instituted, we are beginning to see significant improvements in outcomes for children failed by the state-led system.
Although it’s tempting to think that the crisis has passed and all of DFPS’s problems were solved during the 85th Legislature, nothing could be further from the truth. Without continued vigilance and a commitment to ensuring the success of community-based care, there is significant risk that the agency will fall back into its previous destructive patterns. It will be incumbent upon Whitman’s successor to maintain the early gains made by CBC and ensure the successful expansion of the model to every corner of the state.
One of the first major moves Whitman made after his appointment was instituting a merit-based culture that required staff in leadership positions to re-apply for their jobs and resulted in the termination of several high-ranking managers. It will be even more important for the next commissioner to expand on this policy. As more responsibilities are transferred from DFPS to community agencies, tough decisions will need to be made to eliminate duplication of duties, reduce DFPS spending and reallocate precious taxpayer dollars to the local organizations actually providing services to children under community-based care.
The next commissioner will also have to address the crisis of the growing number of children being removed from their homes—often without strong justification. More than 20,000 children were removed from their families and entered the custody of DFPS during fiscal year 2018. This marks an increase in removals of nearly 71% since 2009 when just over 12,000 children were removed from their families.
The increase in removals roughly coincides with a spike in the number of confirmed allegations for what DFPS calls “neglectful supervision.” This broad subset of neglect is defined as “improper supervision of a child left alone, which could have resulted in substantial harm.” It is worthy to note that this is virtually the only category of maltreatment that has trended upward over the last decade. Other categories of maltreatment—like physical and sexual abuse—have remained relatively flat or have decreased during this same period of time. It is also the category of maltreatment most strongly correlated with poverty, as children from low socioeconomic households are seven times more likely to be considered neglected than their peers from higher socioeconomic households.
As there is a growing awareness of the trauma suffered by children and families as a direct result of interaction with the child welfare system, the next commissioner of DFPS would be wise to place a high priority on addressing this trauma by reforming the way CPS conducts its investigations. Such reforms should be focused on enhancing child safety by reducing unnecessary investigations that trample on the rights of families to live free from government micromanagement of their lives, and which divert resources away from protecting children who are in imminent risk of harm.
Commissioner Whitman accepted one of the state’s hardest jobs in April 2016. His successor will be faced with the arguably tougher task of making sure that Texas delivers on the promise of creating a more responsive, flexible, and innovative child welfare system.