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Senate backs making child welfare department an independent agency

Texas senators unanimously approved a bill that would make the Department of Family and Protective Services its own standalone department.

Department of Family and Protective Services Commissioner Hank Whitman testifies July 12, 2016, to the House Committee on Hu…

The Texas Department of Family and Protective Services could soon be out from under the thumb of the Texas Health and Human Services Commission. 

The Texas Senate on Monday unanimously approved its version of House Bill 5 by Rep. James Frank, R-Wichita Falls, which would make the troubled agency its own standalone department. Proponents say that under the measure, state officials responsible for child welfare issues would be able to make decisions faster. The bill would also have the governor appoint the department's commissioner. 

Sen. Charles Schwertner, R-Georgetown, the bill's upper-chamber sponsor and chairman of the Senate Health and Human Services Committee, said the legislation was just one of many bills lawmakers have proposed to address child welfare issues during the Legislative session. 

"With that, I hope we greatly and dramatically improve child welfare in Texas," he said. 

The Senate added eight amendments to HB 5. Among the changes: The Senate wouldn't be required to confirm the commissioner appointee, and nonprofits working in the child welfare system would get a level of legal immunity. Legislators have said the immunity would allow nonprofits to not worry about frivolous lawsuits, though the law would still hold them responsible for gross or intentional negligence of children under their watch. 

The legislation now goes back to the House, which would have to concur with the Senate's changes or go to a conference committee to negotiate an agreement on the final version to send to Gov. Greg Abbott's desk.

Under HB 5, the department would get full authority on issues like adoption placements, child abuse or neglect investigations, parental education programs, medical services for child abuse victims and protective services for people living with disabilities and the elderly. These are some of the duties the Health and Human Services Commission currently oversees.

The bill comes as legislators implement a series of changes to the state's child welfare system. The department has faced intense scrutiny in recent months over headlines about children sleeping in hotels and Child Protective Services offices, a lack of available foster and adoptive homes, caseworkers grappling with high caseloads and endangered children going unseen after abuse allegations. 

In April, the department again made news after a 15-year-old Houston girl died after she was hit by a minivan while fleeing CPS. Another girl, 17, also an escapee from CPS, was injured during the accident. 

Legislators and department officials have also been vexed by a federal court closely monitoring how the state is working to make changes to how Texas children are cared for. Court-appointed special masters have made a slew of recommendations, but state leaders and legislators have been lukewarm about them.

Department officials and legislators have had a strained relationship amid the recent scrutiny over the child welfare system. In October, after department Commissioner Hank Whitman told the Senate Finance Committee that his department needed $53.3 million to give pay raises to workers and hire more, legislators balked. They eventually gave approval for $150 million in emergency funding. However, legislators this session have been adamant that more money cannot solve the agency's systemic problems. 

HB 5 would still require the department to share responsibility with the commission in coming up with medical service plans for children and what information should go into the child's medical records, also known as a child's "health passport." The bill also re-establishes the Family and Protective Services Council, which helps makes rules and policies for the department.  

While proponents of the bill have touted the legislation as critical to helping the agency react more quickly to crises, opponents have raised concerns. They have said making the agency independent right now takes away from more pressing issues like high caseloads and staff turnover. In addition, they said the oversight over the department allows for more guidance and thoughtful decision-making on issues. 

Read related Tribune coverage:

  • Texans who take in abused and neglected children who are related to them could soon have access to monthly payments to help them pay for items like beds, food and clothes
  • House lawmakers voted to streamline how courts work with the state's child welfare agency to protect abused and neglected kids — and laid out concrete reasons children can be removed from their homes.   
  • After months of calls from advocates to take drastic measures, both chambers unanimously passed bills on that would change how the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services cares for vulnerable children. 
  • Texas children facing abuse and neglect is set to be a major issue during this year's session as legislators grapple with less funding, a federal court case and troubling headlines about failings at the Department of Family and Protective Services.
  • Senate Health and Human Services Committee members voted unanimously to send a bill aimed at overhauling the state's child welfare system to the full Senate for a vote.

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