“HEB has a better tracking of their produce than DFPS does of children in their care.”

U.S. District Court Judge Janis Jack made that statement in a 2020 hearing for the decades-long M.D. v. Abbott child welfare court case. In 2015, she found that ongoing problems with the Texas foster care system amounted to a violation of the constitutional rights of children in its care through the M.D. v. Abbott case. Jack asserted that “Texas’s foster care system is broken, and it has been that way for decades.”

However, much has changed. Since then, the Texas Legislature has been working diligently to not only reform the foster care system but also to reimagine the state’s approach to child welfare to achieve sustainable child welfare, improved policies, and support for families overall. Major reforms enacted during the regular session of the 88th Legislature make Texas a model of successful child welfare system reform for the rest of the nation.

At a Prairie Harbor Treatment Center in Willis, Texas, a 14-year-old girl died from a pulmonary embolism that wasn’t reported from the DFPS staff at the center, despite repeated complaints. Through the M.D. v. Abbott case, Judge Jack found there was little to no oversight at this treatment center, causing mass amounts of harm to the children in its care. Over five years, Prairie Harbor received 145 citations and wasn’t held responsible for any of them. It’s cases like these that Senate Bill 593 in specific looks to remedy, as well as Senate Bill 24 and House Bill 793.

Senate Bill 593 addresses rules and requirements of child welfare service providers, kinship placements, and foster and adoptive families. Between August 2020 and July 2021, the number of children entering the Texas foster care system without a safe, stable placement skyrocketed by nearly 800%. This increase coincided with a loss of more than 1,000 foster care beds. Although there are several factors that contributed to this loss of available placements, a major contributing factor was a regulatory landscape described as inefficient, disjointed, and confusing. The bill is aimed at addressing this problem by bringing in a third party to conduct a full assessment of the Texas child welfare regulatory landscape with the goal of streamlining licensing standards while prioritizing child safety. Once fully implemented, SB 593 will provide a safer child welfare system that is able to meet the unique needs of children who come into state care.

That third party system extended by SB 593 overviews the circumstances in licensed foster care facilities and protects children to a greater extent from circumstances like those of kids at Prairie Harbor.

Senate Bill 24, the “Thriving Texas Families Act,” aims to improve the quality of services provided to Texas families—particularly programs designed to support women and children. Under SB 24, family support programs, including Prevention and Early Intervention (PEI) and the “Texas Pregnancy and Parenting Support Network,” are consolidated within the Health and Human Services Commission (HHSC). The bill directs HHSC to administer grants to nonprofits that serve at-risk families, develop an integrated care system, and improve coordination between services. This allows for greater support to go towards undeveloped childcare facilities and improve conditions from those reported and gives children options to improve the quality of services provided to them through foster care.

House Bill 793 prioritizes reunification of children in foster care with their families by giving families more options for accessing court-ordered services. Previously, families of children in foster care were only able to obtain necessary services from providers who were under contract with the Department of Family and Protective Services (DFPS). Under HB 793, parents working a DFPS service plan now have the right to obtain services from a qualified provider of the parent’s choosing and are no longer limited solely to those contracted by DFPS. The provider must be able to provide services designed to achieve the plan’s goals, and DFPS must reimburse the service provider with funds equal to the cost of that department provided service.

The goal of family support services is to promote healthy outcomes for families and to prevent entries into the foster care system as a result of issues related to substance use, mental health, and conditions of poverty. The result of these bills, families will be more easily able to obtain the services they need to achieve stability and children will spend less time in foster care. Heightened standards of the regulatory landscape prevent facilities and child placement centers like Prairie Harbor from slipping through the cracks with child abuse and neglect.

As found in M.D. v. Abbott, 39% of kids are placed out of their home region in foster care arrangements, and 60% are placed out of their home county. With inadequate placements, children are subjected to harm and frequent movements away from their family without sufficient oversight from their caseworkers. A former foster child stated that he “had never met a young person who stayed in a [residential treatment center] that hasn’t been abused and hasn’t felt like they wouldn’t be able to report it and have somebody believe them.” House Bills 63 and 730 aim to firstly prevent family separation and elevate family’s rights in the process to improve outcomes for their children, as well as reform reporting outside and within the system.

House Bill 63 addresses the problem of anonymous reporting of child abuse or neglect. Anonymous reporting is prohibited in 19 states because it impairs the quality of investigations, allows system abuse, and heightens inaccuracy. Under HB 63, individuals who call CPS to report suspicions of child abuse and neglect must provide their name and contact information. The caller’s identity remains confidential except for investigation purposes. Eliminating anonymous reporting in favor of confidentiality ensures the protection of reporters, discourages malicious false reports, and improves CPS investigations by allowing the agency to follow up with reporters to clarify information.

House Bill 730 changed CPS investigation procedures to reduce family separation and bolster critical due process protections for families in contact with CPS. Among the reforms made by HB 730 is a requirement that CPS investigators inform families of their rights in connection with the investigation at first contact. Similar to the famous Miranda warning provided to criminal suspects, the notification of rights provision in HB 730 ensures that families fully understand their rights and have the opportunity to secure the assistance of legal counsel, which has been proven to improve outcomes for children and families involved with CPS. In addition, HB 730 reforms a practice that has become known as “hidden foster care.” In most cases, CPS cannot remove a child from their family without a court order. In hidden foster care, CPS can temporarily separate families without court oversight using so-called voluntary agreements. These arrangements are under scrutiny for their lack of procedural guardrails and judicial oversight. HB 730, along with a companion Senate bill (SB 614) requires CPS to give families the opportunity to consult with legal counsel prior to signing an agreement, sets strict limits on how long a child may be placed outside the home under an agreement, and establishes data collection and reporting procedures.

Additionally, House Bill 1087 augments those foremost attempts to reduce the number of children in the system along with House Bills 63 and 730.

It aims to improve front-end efforts made by DFPS to keep children out of foster care. Under federal law, CPS must make “reasonable efforts” to prevent the removal of children from their homes. Prior to HB 1087, however, there was no requirement that these efforts be documented or assessed. Under HB 1087, when DFPS files a petition with a court seeking the removal of a child, it is required to describe the actions taken to prevent the removal of the child. The court is then required to document the efforts taken by DFPS that it found reasonable before issuing an order to remove the child into foster care. This important piece of legislation will provide necessary accountability for DFPS and improve the quality of services provided to keep families intact.

Separately, Senate Bill 2120 continues to work through necessary reforms to make the child protective system safer and attentive to families. It improves the quality of representation provided to indigent families who have contact with the child protection system. It is well-documented that poverty is one of the leading underlying causes of child welfare system involvement, yet many families struggle to obtain legal counsel that is critical to navigating the system. SB 2120 establishes a family protection representation program within the Texas Indigent Defense Commission to provide legal representation to low-income families named in a suit filed by DFPS. It also outlines qualifications and standards for attorneys representing children and parents in these proceedings.

The progress of the 88th Legislature works to resolve the problems reported in M.D. v. Abbott, including those of corrupt treatment facilities and childcare centers that cause deaths among kids in the system, problematic placements, and ineffective reporting procedures. These bills are just a few examples of the work done to continue the state’s work to fundamentally transform its child welfare system. As referenced in the M.D. v. Abbott case, reform is needed: and Texas is meeting those standards to prioritize the safety of children and promoting family integrity.