April McWilliams remembers her four years in foster care, spent between three different El Paso homes, as tumultuous.
At 14, she was briefly placed with a family she said was “nice, but they could really only speak Korean.” McWilliams, then on probation for stealing, ran away and found herself locked up in a juvenile detention center for two weeks. For the rest of high school, she lived in flux, going through four child-placing agencies and two more foster homes, one of which housed as many as 16 people at once.
“I felt like a stranger,” said McWilliams, now 27 and living San Antonio. “Pretty much I kicked and screamed the whole time.”
The stories of foster children like McWilliams, marked by uncertainty and impermanence — and, in some cases, even death — have prompted the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services to redesign the state’s foster care system, increasing its reliance, in part, on partnerships with private contractors to find living arrangements for children in foster homes. On Tuesday, the House Human Services Committee, led by state Rep. Richard Peña Raymond, D-Laredo, will meet to discuss the redesign’s implementation, offering a new look at the program's effectiveness.
“Foster children now have too many placements. Everything we do in child welfare is so there are better outcomes for children,” said DFPS spokesman Patrick Crimmins.
The redesign process formally began in 2010, though its first contract with a private company took effect in February 2013, according to DFPS. Supporters of the redesign said they hoped for the fledgling program’s success but were hesitant to draw conclusions just yet. Some child advocates, though, are raising questions about oversight of the private contractors, and they are calling for the state to show the program's results before expanding it. The redesign has already been gradually rolled out in North and West Texas.
“We need to hit the pause button on foster care redesign until we have some standards for foster care providers across the state,” said Ashley Harris, a policy associate for Texans Care for Children. She cited a recent spike in foster child fatalities — up to eight in fiscal year 2013, from two the year before.
“We’ve had children die in our foster care system," Harris said. "Until we address the holes that are in the current system for all our children, we really can’t expand these other efforts.”
Scott McCown, a professor at the University of Texas School of Law and director of the Children’s Rights Clinic, said the foster care redesign is an “attempt to see if private providers can beat that baseline” with better results than the existing system.
“The most you can say is that we’re hopeful,” McCown said. He said DFPS is also working to improve the existing foster care system even as it rolls out the redesign.
Raymond said he expected the hearing to address questions about the redesign’s effectiveness, including data on foster family retention and stability.
“More than anything, I think we’ll hear from the commissioner about where there are kinks still needing to be worked out and if there has been progress,” he said, adding, “We’ll get an idea of what the cost is.”
Alexa Ura contributed reporting.
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