Texas must not give up on foster care plan

“The State of Texas is the legal parent of almost 17,000 foster children,” says a report issued earlier this year by the Sunset Advisory Commission.

The Department of Family and Protective Services, the state agency undergoing Sunset Commission review covered by that document, has been working on a better way to care for those children.

The Legislature approved the project, called Foster Care Redesign, in 2011, and DFPS formally launched it in 2013.

Now, despite the promise of overcoming decades of disappointment with its foster care system, of outright failure to be the parent those kids deserve, Texas is in danger of letting hope slip away.

A combination of underfunding and bureaucratic overload will doom Foster Care Redesign if lawmakers don’t act decisively to save it next year.

The only part of the promised statewide effort that is working today is led by a Fort Worth nonprofit, ACH Child and Family Services, formerly All Church Home.

Under a three-year contract that took effect Jan. 1, ACH is managing foster care services for about 3,000 children and families in seven counties: Tarrant, Johnson, Parker, Palo Pinto, Hood, Somervell and Erath.

Seven counties covered. That leaves 247 to go.

The Sunset report cites “longstanding, well-known” problems in the Texas foster care system:

▪ Foster homes and services aren’t where children need them, “forcing the agency to place some children hundreds of miles away from their home communities, siblings, schools, and other supports.”

▪ Information is “inadequate” for placing children in homes that best suit them.

▪ Children are forced to change homes frequently, “causing further instability in already chaotic lives.”

▪ Services for children with behavioral and physical health needs are insufficient.

▪ Some kids get better care and services than others.

▪ There are “ongoing concerns about safety of children in foster care, including the recent increase in child deaths.”

In its report summary, the Sunset Commission pointed to the overarching problem at DFPS.

“Despite the inherent difficulty of its protective mission,” the report says, “DFPS is expected to answer for every bad outcome. … The agency frequently finds itself on the defensive and in a constant state of putting out fires and responding to crisis and criticism … in which outside pressures dominate the agenda.

“What DFPS sorely needs is a timeout to breathe and a chance to regroup after being in near constant transition for so long.”

In developing Foster Care Redesign, agency leaders actually stepped back and studied how their system was operating.

With help from foster care providers and others, they developed a managed care model in which one contractor in each of 19 geographic regions blanketing the state would assume responsibility for placing children in foster care in that region and securing the services they need.

That’s what ACH has been doing in its seven-county area around Fort Worth for the past year, operating under state requirements and goals.

Wayne Carson, the nonprofit’s CEO, says state funding came up $1.2 million short of covering the first year’s costs.

But ACH has been devoted to “protecting children and preserving families” since 1915 and is devoted to the Foster Care Redesign concepts.

“We knew it was underfunded going into it,” Carson told the Star-Telegram Editorial Board.

One other contractor, Providence Service Corp., took on the same responsibilities in a region centered around Abilene beginning in August 2013. Providence, based in Tucson, withdrew a year later after seeking more state funding.

In September, a third-party analysis conducted by a Boston consulting firm concluded that “additional funds to develop and fund the capacity required for the new model are needed.”

DFPS has told the Sunset Commission it will re-examine Foster Care Redesign and its costs and will work out a long-range plan by February.

Meanwhile, Sunset Commission members this past week approved a sweeping reorganization of the Health and Human Services Commission, of which DFPS is a part.

State leaders must not let Foster Care Redesign get lost in the shuffle.