The Department of Family and Protective Services was in the news this week because its commissioner, Hank Whitman is retiring. His announcement came a day after the Texas legislative session ended. Child advocates say the session was marked by little action on foster care.
Let’s back up two years to the 2017 Texas legislative session.
That year, Gov. Greg Abbott made overhauling the state’s struggling child welfare system a top priority during his State of the State Address.
“We need more workers, better training, smarter strategies, and real accountability in order to safeguard our children,” Abbott said.
Abbott’s call to action came after a federal judge declared the Texas foster care system “unconstitutional” and “broken.” There had also been a spike in the number of kids sleeping in state offices and hotels due to a lack of placements. The agency was also facing high staff turnover rates.
As a result, state lawmakers pumped an extra $500 million into the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services.
Cut to the 2019 Texas legislative session, and well, it just wasn’t the same.
Kate Murphy is the senior child welfare policy associate at Texans Care for Children. She had hoped lawmakers would prioritize more foster care reforms this session.
“And there were a number of pretty big ticket items things like expanding trauma informed care, and taking care of our older youth in foster care that they were hoping to work on last session, that just didn’t get the kind of attention we were expecting at all,” Murphy says.
Will Francis echoes that perspective. He’s the government relations director for the National Association of Social Workers, Texas Chapter.
“School finance and property tax reform sucked all of the air out of the room and maybe rightly so, in that these were major issues that needed to be addressed.” Francis says.
He says he thinks part of the problem, is that state lawmakers tend to look at issues as session-specific.
“Meaning because they put so much attention and in their case, renewed and increased resources into CPS last session, many of them thought that problem was solved and didn’t want to come back to it,” he says.
But chances are, next session, they will have to tackle the issue again, because there are some major milestones ahead for Texas foster care.
The class action lawsuit that found long-term foster care unconstitutional will be reaching its final conclusion. Plus, a federal measure that revamps how the U.S. government pays states for foster care goes into effect after the 2021 session ends. It’s called the Family First Prevention Services Act. That leaves little time for the state to comply with new federal standards to keep qualifying for those taxpayer dollars.
“Waiting until the next legislative cycle, we will have one month from the beginning of the next fiscal year to when the law goes into effect to start investing money and making changes and that’s just not going to be enough time,” Murphy says.
There are some smaller, piecemeal measures that have been sent to Gov. Abbott to improve the lives of kids in foster care. One measure, House Bill 475, provides support services to pregnant and parenting teens in the system. Another piece of legislation, House Bill 123, would make it easier for foster youth to get identification documents allowing them to access jobs, education, and housing.