I want to address an issue in our Texas foster care system. But it’s not completely about foster care. It’s about an agency that ignores the wishes of the Legislature and the governor (elected by Texans) to do its own thing—and gets caught doing it.
This is unacceptable in Texas. This is why our interim hearings—the committee hearings we hold between legislative sessions—on the progress of legislation is so vital to our way of government.
We had a doozy of a hearing last week. It was the first hearing of the Joint (Senate and House) Legislative Oversight Committee on Community-Based Care Transition. The Community-Based Foster Care plan, which was designed nearly a decade ago, went through a pilot program prior to full implementation. The purpose of this plan is to overhaul our Texas foster care system in order to bring the decisions and the placements of our foster children back to our local communities instead of Austin.
The best care for our state’s foster care kids is locally provided, with a local group (a non-profit, a county, or another willing organization) seeking the best solutions for the kids in their own area. The regions that have implemented this approach have far better permanent results and outcomes for these vulnerable kids.
Why? Because they recruit foster families. They work to help families (through education and intervention) reunite with their own kids. They don’t do the work of a CPS Investigator, but once a situation is identified by CPS, these local providers step in on behalf of the kids and families involved. Finally, they work to find ways to provide beds for the kids that are not able to be placed in homes (usually these are kids with severe mental health issues and/or extremely violent behaviors).
But the Department of Family and Protective Services (DFPS) has not been quick to implement this legislatively required plan. Because of the agency underfunding potential providers and blocking their progress in the application process, only four of the 11 regions around the state have this service available. And that’s while DFPS’s state budget for program support and foster care has grown by a whopping 78.2% since 2014.
In the last legislative session, Senate Health and Human Services Committee chair Sen. Lois Kolkhorst passed SB 1896 with the clear goal of making sure Community-Based Foster Care is available around the state. Her counterpart in the House, Rep. James Frank, also carried this bill. Because excellence in foster care is a non-partisan issue, SB 1896 passed both the House and Senate unanimously and was signed into law. It went into effect immediately on May 24, 2021.
Among other things, the new law formed our joint oversight committee, and created a new temporary state agency—the Office of Community-Based Care Transition. To ensure the success of the transition to Community-Based Care, money was allocated to hire the needed employees for the temporary agency. Money was also allocated for the start-ups of these Community-Based Care groups around the state. We also passed appropriations to pay $87 per child, per day to these providers (most of which are non-profits).
But instead of transforming Texas foster care, as intended, the Office of Community-Based Care Transition has largely been absorbed—along with the funds for the full-time employees—by the Department of Family and Protective Services (DFPS). The new group was to have 73 employees, so this program would be quickly advanced around the state. The Office of Community Based Care employees did hire 51 employees at some point, however, a DFPS attorney decided that the new agency was not allowed to do the job the legislation required of it (citing federal regulations). So DFPS justified taking all but 21 of those new full-time positions under its already inefficient umbrella.
In other words, DFPS completely ignored implementing the new law, and decided to do things the way it has done things in past. This is state government at its most convoluted. And it is completely unacceptable.
The new office of Community-Based Care Transition has been working hard. The members hold weekly zoom meetings. They work with DFPS on regulations and other issues as they arise but the progress is not what was called for in the legislation that went into effect 15 months ago.
The invited testimony was quite revealing. No clear roadmap has been provided for these potential Community-Based Foster Care providers to get started or to do their work. Instead, they face mixed messages, duplicative paperwork, and ever-expanding red tape regulations. Some even reported concerns that they would face retribution from the agency if they testified before our committee.
This is the exact opposite of what we intended to be a new chapter for our foster care system. We envisioned a system focused on the kids, innovating and looking for better solutions. One provider said that it had to hire two employees at its own expense to do duplicative paperwork covering escalating requirements—state paperwork which remains largely manually entered into an old system.
Another provider said that prior to them taking over the area’s foster care system the state’s current system (known as Legacy) was paying $2 million in services in that area, yet only allocated $1 million for the new group to do the same job. This provider is, as a result, forecasting a $1 million shortfall. As a non-profit, it will have to do fundraising to cover this shortfall. That’s not OK.
Another provider asked the state for a list of the resources in its area that are state-approved providers. I’m not sure which state agency it was, but the state actually told the provider that it would have to file a request under the Public Information Act and pay a fee in order to get the information it would need to do its job. Again, not OK at all.
In my opinion, the most egregious of the many alarming items we heard about in our hearing was that one Community-Based Foster Care provider had submitted three regulation waivers (as is their right under SB 1896). One waiver was submitted over a year ago, while the other two have also been in the system for months. Not a single one got a response from the Office of Community-Based Care Transition or from DFPS. When the agency was presenting testimony and asked about the status of the waivers, it was reported that the waiver requests were all with “legal” in DFPS. For a year? Outrageous. Again, unresponsive government at its worst. This is embarrassing.
Business as usual in our foster care arena is not going to cut it. We will be following up very soon with another Oversight Committee hearing to check the progress on the many issues we asked be addressed (I’ve only mentioned a few, believe it or not). The agencies are on notice. They may not ignore the direction they have been given in legislation. They need to make a clear and measurable effort to implement the legislative priority—as passed.
Every effort we make should be for the benefit and the progress of our kids in foster care and for the people who make it their mission to love, care for and help these kids. That is our ultimate goal.