In his January State of the State address, Gov. Greg Abbott elevated child protection system reform as his number one emergency item. This occurred against the backdrop of a 2015 federal court ruling that Texas’ foster care system violated children's Constitutional right to be “free from an unreasonable risk of harm.” Media scrutiny also revealed major problems with Child Protective Services (CPS), such as children sleeping in hotels and CPS offices due to placement shortages.
Our system was in crisis – with high turnover and high caseloads, the foundation was crumbling as children slipped through the gaps. Under the leadership of Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and Speaker Joe Straus, the Legislature took significant steps toward filling these gaps.
Ellis County lawmakers Senator Brian Birdwell and Representative John Wray similarly supported CASA and child-welfare related legislation. Sen. Birdwell authored Senate Bill 707, which aimed to ensure that the testimonies of victims of child abuse would be heard in court. (Rep. Wray was a sponsor of that bill.) Both lawmakers were also co-authors of major reform legislation that supported children in the child welfare system.
As a result of new legislation and additional appropriations, substantive changes championed by Texas CASA and other child advocates were enacted, including measures to: consolidate all investigations under CPS regardless of whether children live in foster care facilities or with families; increase foster care and kinship capacity; increase caseworker pay and lower caseloads; and enact structural changes to the Department of Family and Protective Services (DFPS) to operate with more flexibility and ensure all reports of abuse and neglect are investigated in a thorough, consistent and timely manner.
By session’s end, significant reforms reached the Governor’s desk, including a $508.5 million funding increase for DFPS, which Sen. Birdwell and Rep. Wray supported. This substantial increase comes during an otherwise austere budget cycle – highlighting how dedicated the Legislature was to making child welfare reform a priority.
Already, the CPS workforce has begun to stabilize. Caseworkers received a much-needed pay raise beginning last December that, along with increased staffing to lower caseloads, has led to improved child protection.
Lawmakers also turned their attention to addressing the need for more foster homes. Currently, about 60 percent of children are placed outside their home counties. With an investment of $95 million towards payment increases to foster care providers and an expansion of foster care redesign, lawmakers hope to bolster the number and quality of providers and improve the chances of children being placed closer to their home and families.
A major CPS reform bill will increase the placements for children with relatives, known as kinship placement. This legislation better supports family members who take in children in CPS care, giving them a bump in annual payments, which are still about half of what basic foster care providers receive.
The future looks brighter for children in foster care today than it did back in January, yet there’s more to be done. The focus must remain on the best interest of the children. All aspects of our child protection system need to become more informed about the complex trauma abused and neglected children experience and how it affects their behavior. We also need to create mechanisms that engage and involve relatives and other caring adults to support children in foster care, such as the Collaborative Family Engagement program that CASA programs are developing with CPS.
Lawmakers took meaningful steps to change the fate of Texas children. We continue to move forward from here. When foster children have the level of care and services they need, they will begin to thrive – and when our kids thrive, so will Texas.