In what is becoming a sad tradition, U.S. District Court Judge Janis Jack again excoriated the Department of Family and Protective Services (DFPS) for its failure to turn around the state’s beleaguered foster care system in a recent hearing. The status hearing focused on the state’s efforts to comply with remedial orders Judge Jack issued stemming from a 2011 lawsuit over unsafe conditions in the state foster care system and poor treatment of children.

What made this hearing different from previous ones, though, was the presentation of improvements recommended by an expert panel appointed last fall to help the state solve the ongoing “Children Without Placement” crisis.

Between August 2020 and July 2021, the number of children entering the state foster care system without a safe place to go skyrocketed from 47 to 416, a 785% increase. These children, who are predominantly older or require more specialized care, are spending more and more nights sleeping in DFPS offices, hotel rooms, or unlicensed temporary shelters.

In its report to the court, the expert panel discussed the main factors contributing to the crisis. These factors included the inconsistent and often heavy-handed oversight of providers by DFPS and the Health and Human Services Commission (HHSC), the lack of adequate home and community-based resources, especially in the area of child mental health, and leadership deficiencies within DFPS that have created a toxic culture that blames children for their situation and alienates providers.

Although the solutions proposed by the panel are non-binding, there are a number of recommendations the state would be wise to implement—starting with taking decisive action to address the chronic mismanagement of the foster care system by DFPS. The recommendation with the greatest potential, however, is the panel’s suggestion that the state engage “an external consultant (or team)” to assist DFPS leadership with solving the CWOP crisis and achieving agency-wide transformation.

The last decade (and now the expert panel report) has made it abundantly clear that the myriad problems plaguing the Texas foster care system are rooted in ongoing structural and cultural issues within the department. Bringing in an outside team of experts to address these issues will do more to help children and free the state from the quagmire of the lawsuit than any other reform. However, state leaders should depart from the expert panel’s recommendation in one key area. Rather than having this team “report to and be selected by the DFPS Commissioner” as suggested by the panel, the team should be fully independent and empowered to completely overhaul the department.

As part of the overhaul, the external team should also implement the panel’s recommendation that the state build a “fully-developed system of care” focused on increasing the capacity of home and community-based resources to provide children with high-quality treatment and placement services tailored to their unique needs. It is essential that this system of care be founded upon the “community-based care” model created by the 85th Legislature, which is currently being implemented in four regions of the state.

Community-based care was created in 2017 to fix the problems that led to the lawsuit by reorganizing the system to give local communities primary responsibility for caring for and managing the cases of children in foster care. In its report, the expert panel cites “the prolonged implementation timeline for community-based care” as a barrier to achieving fundamental system transformation.

While the expert panel’s report provides a helpful roadmap for navigating our way out of the current crisis, their report is not perfect and contains several recommendations that state officials should avoid. First and foremost, Governor Abbott and the Legislature should reject the panel’s recommendation that Texas expand Medicaid. Since Judge Jack issued her remedial orders in 2015, the Legislature has pumped more than $1.5 billion into DFPS, including an emergency appropriation of an additional $55 million during the summer of 2021 earmarked for solving the CWOP crisis. Adequate funding is not the issue and expanding Medicaid would only make it harder for foster children to get the care they need by increasing wait times and decreasing access to the already limited pool of medical providers who accept Medicaid.

During the recent hearing, Judge Jack praised the Texas Legislature and Governor Abbott (as well as Governors Bush and Perry) for making foster care reform a priority and providing DFPS with the resources needed to right the ship. With the addition of the expert panel’s recommendations, the state now has every tool it needs to finally make the Texas system safe and responsive to the needs of our most vulnerable children. All that remains is for state leaders to execute.