The Department of Family and Protective Services (DFPS) recently announced that more children exited foster care into safe homes than entered the system during 2019. The department also announced that the number of adoptions during the year surpassed 6,000 for the first time.
This good news has been a long time coming for the foster care system. It indicates that major reforms enacted by the Legislature in 2017—notably the localization of foster care and adoption services—are working. Continued improvement requires a continued commitment to seeing these changes through.
It is important, however, to resist the temptation to interpret the positive results as evidence that all the problems have been solved. Just two years ago, foster care reform was declared an emergency item by Gov. Greg Abbott because of more than a decade of failures that put children at unreasonable risk of harm. Such things do not change overnight.
The state remains entrenched in an ongoing legal battle and under court supervision to fix a child welfare system that was found to be violating the rights and risking the safety of foster children in a lawsuit brought in 2011. Texas is still facing mandated system fixes, and the state paid a $150,000 fine connected to the lawsuit just last month.
The department has also been under intense scrutiny over the last few years for a series of high-profile unnecessary removal cases. In one case, Child Protective Services was found to have pushed for removal despite overwhelming evidence that abuse had not occurred. The family involved endured more than a year of legal battles and the removal of their children, only for the department to send a letter stating no evidence of abuse existed.
In a similar case, a naturally occurring injury misdiagnosed as abuse by a child abuse pediatrician resulted in CPS taking custody of the child. Despite multiple expert opinions that the child’s injuries could be explained by an underlying condition, it took almost a year for the family to be reunited.
There has also been criticism around the increasing numbers of removals, which has risen steadily since 2009, reaching a peak in 2018 of 20,685 children removed from their homes. This number does not even represent the additional thousands of children in out-of-home placements via supposedly “voluntary” safety plans, in which a family is threatened with removal of their child if they do not comply with the department’s open-ended demands.
Clearly, the state still has a long way to go. The positive statistics represent individual children who not only enter and exit care, but receive services, go through the court system, cycle through placements, and ultimately have families they are either leaving or reuniting with.
In this light, the gravity of child welfare reform is tremendous. Such reforms must consider children, parents, and their constitutional right to be a family and raise their children as they see fit. Reforms must consider trauma, both of maltreatment and of involvement in the system. And reforms must ensure that checks and balances exist within the system so that children are safe, while seeing that unnecessary removals do not continue to occur.
These reforms could be as narrow as clarifying the state’s statutory definition of child maltreatment to give more precise guidance to investigating caseworkers, and as broad as providing more accountability in the courtroom and hospitals so innocent families are not labeled abusers simply due to unchecked power.
So as we celebrate the progress of getting more children into loving homes, we must remember that there is much more progress to be made to protect children and families, and to ensure these improvements are not undone.