As state officials move forward on a redesign of the foster care system that outsources services to private contractors, some advocates and judges told a House Human Services Committee hearing Monday that the new model blurs the line on accountability.
The Texas Department of Family Protective Services had previously awarded contracts to foster care providers that met its criteria for providing safe homes, medical treatment and therapy for children who had suffered abuse or neglect, or whose parents had died. However, the DFPS didn't take into account where those providers were located. Even when Child Protective Services determines that a child is not safe in his or her home, it's still advantageous for that child to stay in the same community in which he or she was growing up. This keeps them in the same school, near friends and family members, and other personal resources.
But the providers tended to be clustered in some areas and sparse in others, and that led to children being plucked out of their home communities and sometimes placed hundreds of miles away. Officials hope that by outsourcing child assessment, treatment and placement to contractors in charge of specific regions, children will stay closer to home, services will be more evenly spread out and children will receive services more tailored to their specific situations.
“Our goal is to make sure those services are as close to the children as possible, and seamless so the children aren't bounced around,” said Audrey Deckinga, the DFPS assistant commissioner for Child Protective Services.
Tentative contracts were given to Lutheran Social Services of the South, a nonprofit, and Providence Service Corporation of Texas, a for-profit company, last month. DFPS is still negotiating their final contracts, but hopes to have them finished by September. Eventually, the DFPS plans to have 11 contracts across the state.
But outsourcing has led to concerns about how contractors will be held accountable for the roughly 28,000 children in foster care.
“My fear with outsourcing is that CPS retains all the responsibilities as the managing conservator, but they don't have any of the authority in the day-to-day of what is going on in each case,” said Susan Etheridge, executive director of Court Appointed Special Advocates.
John J. Specia Jr., a retired Bexar County judge, said that another layer between foster children and the court could hinder access to those children, making fair rulings about who gets custody of those children difficult. However, he said the redesign solves more problems than it creates by keeping children in their home communities.
“When the kids are placed hundreds of miles away, it makes it more difficult to check in on the child or receive testimony from someone who has personal knowledge of the child's condition,” Specia said.
Another part of the redesign that concerned Etheridge is switching how contractors are paid. Under the old system, foster care facilities that took on children with greater needs received more funds, but that created a financial disincentive to get children healthy, because the facilities received less money as the children improved in health and behavior. The new system would incentivize children getting better and being adopted or reunited with their families.
“If the lead agency is going to be paid based on outcomes, let’s be honest, they might tend to make things look a little better than they are,” Etheridge said. “It's important to have real accountability. The people doing the work have to be in court.”
Etheridge suggested the creation of a committee that would look at data from what worked and what didn't in other states, and she also proposed posting Texas' foster care data online so that it can be properly scrutinized.
Deckinga agreed and also put an emphasis on data as a means of accountability. She said the DFPS is looking for ways to best monitor the contractors, especially by looking at performance outcomes over time.
Another major part of Monday's hearing centered on the perceived conflict of interest for regional contractors dealing with the foster care providers they might subcontract with. The regional contractors could make their own subcontracts with local providers but also provide some services themselves. Smaller providers raised concerns that the regional contractors would instead choose to expand their services, taking all the state funding for themselves and terminating contracts with those who had previously worked with DFPS, putting them out of business.
Raymond Kinman, president of the Open Arms Agency in Corpus Christi, said that Nebraska contractors did just that under a similar model.
“It's not brain surgery,” Kinman said. “It happened once, and it's going to happen again unless we stop it.”
Richard Pena Raymond, D-Laredo, the chairman of the Human Services Committee, promised those who voiced concerns would receive a response from the DFPS sometime next week.
The last witness of the day was Laquinton Wagner, the only person to testify who had formerly been in the foster care system. Wagner said that from the testimony he had heard Monday, most witnesses were too focused on money and not on the real problems with the foster care system.
Wagner, 23, said he was abused in foster care, put on too many anti-psychotic drugs at too young an age, and provided with virtually no resources to help him get on his feet once he aged out of the system. Wagner said he was homeless after getting out of foster care and got into trouble with the law.
He added that he had no idea there was a college tuition waiver for former foster-care children until three years after he aged out.
These are the issues lawmakers should be discussing, Wagner said.
“I think foster care focuses far too much on pockets, and far too little on the well-being of children and parents,” Wagner said.