Hey, Texplainer: What did the Texas Legislature do to improve Child Protective Services and foster care during this year's session?

We really can’t talk about what happened on child welfare issues during the regular session without reviewing how the Texas Legislature got to this point.

Picture it: October 2016. The Department of Family and Protective Services and Texas legislators are getting hammered over headlines about children sleeping in state offices, overworked caseworkers and some endangered children going unseen by workers. Gov. Greg Abbott, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and House Speaker Joe Straus are fed up and tell DFPS Commissioner Hank Whitman to get it together and save the kids — whatever it takes.

Fast forward through lawmakers beating up on Whitman during an intense hearing, and by December 2016 the agency has been approved for $150 million in emergency funds to offer higher salaries and hire more caseworkers. Everyone rolls out for the holidays patting themselves on the back, energized to do more once the legislative session begins. 

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In January, Abbott named the state's child welfare crisis as one of four emergency items during his State of the State address. During the five-month session, lawmakers expressed determination to change how abused and neglected children are cared for.

Let’s start with money. The 2018-2019 state budget gives the Department of Family and Protective Services $4 billion, up from $3.5 billion for the previous two-year cycle. That includes about $300 million to continue pay raises for caseworkers and another $88 million to hire 500 caseworkers in 2018 and 600 more in 2019. The department also has $95 million to boost payments to foster care families and other providers.

Some noteworthy bills Abbott signed into law include:

  • House Bill 4, which allocates about $350 a month to families caring for abused and neglected children who are related to them.

  • House Bill 5, which makes the Department of Family and Protective Services a standalone agency outside of the Texas Health and Human Services Commission.

  • House Bill 7, which changes how courts work with the state's child welfare agency, including allowing parents more access to evidence about abuse and neglect allegations against them.

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  • House Bill 1521, which improves coordination between the child welfare and juvenile justice systems when youth are involved in both.

  • HB 1542, which allows the state to place children in “cottage homes” where 12 or fewer kids live with adult caregivers on duty at all times.

  • HB 1549, which bolsters how the Department of Family and Protective Services tracks child deaths or near deaths from abuse or neglect.

  • House Bill 3859, which allows child welfare providers to deny adoptions and other services to children and parents based on "sincerely held religious beliefs." Critics called it discriminatory against LGBT people.

  • Senate Bill 11, which lets the state create a "community-based care" model, contracting with nonprofits to oversee children in foster care, adoptive homes and relatives' homes.

  • Senate Bill 497, which would require the Department of Family and Protective Services to create an office of data analytics to study the agency’s workforce and understand issues with employee training, management and turnover rates.

But don’t let legislator back-patting fool you. Texas has work to do.  

One of the first tasks: convince a federal judge the state doesn’t need help with its child welfare system.

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U.S. District Judge Janis Jack ruled in 2015 that Texas’ foster care system violated children's rights. After the ruling, Jack forced Texas to pay for special masters to scrutinize the Department of Family and Protective Services. Many of the items the special masters pointed out in their November 2016 report — limiting case loads, managing children’s medical records better, doing more to help older children — have been long-known problems among Texas legislators and child welfare advocates. State leaders and legislators have expressed indignation over the court’s ongoing involvement.

Abbott said earlier this month that legislators’ work during the session showed Texas could take care of children. He also said the case should be dismissed. 

Today’s Texplainer is inspired by a question from Texas Tribune reader Roxanne Werner. Send us your questions about Texas politics and policy by emailing texplainer@texastribune.org or through texastribune.org/texplainer.

Read related Tribune coverage:

  • Two days after the end of the legislative session, Gov. Greg Abbott held a public ceremony to sign four major child welfare bills into law. [Full story]

  • Child welfare providers can use their "sincerely held religious beliefs" to decide what homes and services foster and adoptive children should receive. [Full story]

  • The long-awaited report comes after U.S. District Judge Janis Jack ruled that Texas’ long-term foster care system violated children's civil rights. [Full story]

  • Texas children facing abuse and neglect are going to be a major issue during the 85th Legislative Session as legislators grapple with less funding, a federal court case and troubling headlines about failings at the Department of Family and Protective Services. [Full story]

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