If 2016 taught us anything — from top Texas leaders down to each of us who is enjoying this Christmas holiday with family and loved ones — it is that Texas must do a far better job protecting children who have been split from their families because of abuse or neglect.
Fixing the state’s foster care system and the operations of the Department of Family and Protective Services must be among the Legislature’s very highest priorities for its 2017 session, which begins Jan. 10.
It’s clear that leaders including Gov. Greg Abbott recognize the need.
Months of headlines have made the problems impossible to miss: children under the state’s care sleeping in agency offices for lack of foster homes, overloaded case workers failing to make required contacts with children known to be at risk, and an ongoing court case in which a federal judge said children often age out of foster care more damaged than when they went in.
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Abbott appointed a new DFPS commissioner, former Texas Rangers lawman Hank Whitman Jr.
Whitman presented a reorganization plan to Abbott and legislative committees, proposing to hire hundreds of workers and give $12,000 raises to caseworkers and some administrators to slow attrition and attract new talent.
But when legislators meet, the real question will be what changes they’ll endorse and pay for.
The Senate’s primary foster care reform vehicle, Senate Bill 11, has already been filed by three of the body’s leaders: Sen. Charles Schwertner, R-Georgetown, chairman of the Health and Human Services Committee; Sen. Jane Nelson, R-Flower Mound, chairwoman of the Senate Finance Committee; and Sen. Carlos Uresti, D-San Antonio, a Child Protective Services and foster care advocate for 10 years in the House and in the Senate since 2006.
SB11 includes provisions to expand on one of the most promising features of the current foster care system.
It’s a program called Foster Care Redesign run by ACH Child and Family Services of Fort Worth. Under a 2014 contract with the state, ACH supervises most aspects of the foster care system, including foster home recruitment, child placements and family assistance, in a seven-county area.
Results have been promising, but the nonprofit ACH expects to devote $5 million of its own money to the effort by the time the state contract ends next year.
Foster care can be fixed, but it’s going to cost a lot.