*Correction appended

Texas’ children facing abuse and neglect will be a major focus during the 85th Legislative Session as lawmakers grapple with a tight budget, a federal court case and troubling headlines about failings at the Department of Family and Protective Services.

In October, a fed-up Gov. Greg Abbott, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and House Speaker Joe Straus sent a letter to the department's commissioner, Hank Whitman, ordering bolder action to save children from abusive homes and help find foster home placements for them. As the session gets underway, the agency is facing scrutiny over how officials are managing its $150 million in emergency funding. Legislators are also filing bills that could dramatically change Texas' child welfare system.

Patrick said during a Texas Tribune event this week that child welfare is on his 25-point legislative agenda. He said child welfare is a growing problem in Texas, citing high turnover among state workers and a lack of foster families. But regardless of the funding battle, Patrick said, “we’ll always protect the children.”

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“You can’t pass legislation that unfortunately changes the culture of some families, but no child should be in an abusive home, no child should be in danger,” Patrick said. “We need to do all that we can.”

Here are five things to watch during the session.

1. It’s about Texas children ... but it’s also about the funding.

Texas legislators have said for months they want to help abused and neglected children but with a tough budget battle ahead, it’s unclear how much lawmakers will deliver on funding. Legislators received a grim report on Monday that they will have $104.87 billion in state funds for the two-year budget, a 2.7 percent decrease from 2015.

The Legislature has a checkered past when it comes to funding requests from state agencies. Consider in October how Senate Finance Committee members had a conniption when Whitman said he needed $53.3 million to help save abused and neglected Texas children. Members were initially unconvinced more money would help solve the agency’s systemic problems. They said Whitman should have told them sooner how dire things were, especially with state caseworkers being unable to see thousands of endangered children in time due to hefty caseloads.

But headline after headline of grim reports about traumatized and abused children sleeping in offices while waiting for a home placement and overworked caseworkers may have softened lawmakers. In December, the Legislative Budget Board authorized $150 million for the agency to hire 829 new caseworkers and give $12,000 raises to existing ones. It will be important to watch whether lawmakers grant the Department of Family and Protective Services' funding request. 

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2. The Department of Family and Protective Services is facing big tests this session.

The department is required to deliver weekly reports to the governor's office and the Legislature on the number of at-risk children who have not been seen by Child Protective Services investigators within one day. State lawmakers expressed outrage when they learned thousands of Texas children had not been seen for days, weeks, or months at a time by a CPS worker due to high caseloads or an inability to locate them.

In addition, the department has to deliver twice-a-month reports looking at: the number of cases staffers are working on; investigations open for more than two months; salary rates for existing and new hires; and the number of people in training. These reports will likely be seen as a key indicator for legislators on whether the emergency funding is helping. May 1 is a big day for the agency — starting then, caseworkers will have to see 90 percent of "priority one" children within 24 hours. That deadline comes as budget debates will be in high gear. The agency is also under pressure for supervisors to complete training by June 1. Meanwhile, the agency is starting staff exit surveys this month.

3. Texas’ federal court battle over its child welfare system isn’t over.

U.S. District Judge Janis Jack continues to haunt Texas legislators in the wake of her ruling that the state’s foster care system violated children's civil rights. Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton and legislators are adamant that the state does not need federal oversight to overhaul the Department of Family and Protective Services.  

But a report released Nov. 4 by "special masters" who have been tasked with evaluating the agency made a number of recommendations. Those include decreasing CPS worker caseloads and turnover rates in the agency, improving training, managing and mentorship opportunities for new hires and building up skills for children aging out of the program. In December, Jack ordered the state to stop allowing foster children to be placed in group homes without 24-hour supervision. Jack said in an order on Jan. 9 that the special masters' recommendations for Texas "require additional information gathering, input, and supervision by the Court." But Paxton and other state attorneys are arguing the recommendations are “too vague” for the state to follow and are not backed with enough evidence. Regardless of how much funding lawmakers decide to spend to address the child welfare crisis, the federal court may continue to loom over them.

4. The state is raising caseworker salaries, but hiring and retention goals matter, too.

When the Legislative Budget Board said in December the agency could give $12,000 salary raises to existing workers, it was a big win for the Texas social worker community. Agency officials, advocates and legislators are betting on the salary increases to slow the caseworker turnover rate. But part of that $150 million package includes giving reports on the number of new employees hired, staff turnover rates and how many cases they’re working on.

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Hiring 829 caseworkers, special investigators and other staff for the agency is going to be a challenge. Besides finding people willing to take on these roles, the agency may have a tough time convincing hires to stay on, even if there are better salaries. Whitman says the agency is working on ways to improve mentoring for new hires going out into the field to see children so they have an idea of what to expect. But the number of cases is the real sticking point for the agency. Ideally, more workers would mean spreading out the workload, but lackluster retention rates has meant the agency is piling more cases on staffers. It will be important to watch how the hiring process goes.

5. Legislators have bills filed to work on a foster care overhaul.

The phrase “foster care” appears in 18 filed bills in the House and Senate so far, according to the Texas Legislature Online website. Sen. Jane Nelson, R- Flower Mound, chairwoman of the Senate Finance Committee, Sen. Charles Schwertner, R-Georgetown, chairman of the Senate Finance Committee’s Workgroup on Child Protection and Sen. Carlos Uresti, D-San Antonio, jointly filed Senate Bill 11, which would mean a massive overhaul for foster care.

Changes under the bill would include reviewing and extending retention of abuse and neglect records, requiring CPS special investigators to see residential child care facilities abuse victims within three days, implementing benchmarks, funding incentives and consequences for foster care contractors and collaborating with universities to evaluate prevention programs. Patrick has designated S.B. 11 as one of his legislative priorities.

Other bills filed propose giving more financial assistance to caregivers, quicker medical and mental health assessments for children entering the foster care system, establishing county boards to oversee CPS services and tracking repeated child abuse and neglect reports. 

Read related Tribune coverage:

  • A board of lawmakers has given final approval for $150 million in funding to help pull the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services out of its crisis mode — but there are strings attached.  
  • legal filing from Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton has put Texas leaders in a delicate position of conceding problems in foster care but arguing against a federal judge's proposed reforms.
  • A workgroup of the Texas Senate Finance Committee was willing to give Child Protective Services caseworkers $12,000 raises but balked at hiring all the new workers Whitman requested.

Correction: A previous version of this story said that CPS' "priority one" children are those younger than 6. In fact, though priority one children are often under 6, a "priority one" case can involve a child of any age about whom CPS has received a serious report. 

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