Texas' child welfare system was already in crisis before Hurricane Harvey.
Now, perhaps hundreds of foster families in Houston and along the Gulf Coast have been displaced by the storm and hundreds of child welfare workers have been unable to return to work, said the state official who oversees Child Protective Services on Friday. And state officials say flooded roads have kept caseworkers from meeting in person with some at-risk children as required by law.
"Workers have really been heroic,” said the CPS chief, Kristene Blackstone, who added that caseworkers have been visiting foster families in evacuee shelters, connecting them with services and schlepping carloads of donated clothing, diapers and food to them.
It’s about “making sure families have their immediate needs met and then two, making sure the services they need long term are all there for them,” Blackstone said.
Even before the storm, caseworkers were stretched thin, children were having to sleep in state offices when no foster homes could be found, and the agency failed to check on thousands of at-risk children. Gov. Greg Abbott called fixing the "rickety system" an emergency priority this year for the Legislature, which responded by approving money to hire caseworkers, continue pay raises for workers and increase payments for foster families.
Since the storm, Texas has received 86 reports of child abuse and neglect on its 24-hour hotline. Among them, 21 reports were of possible mistreatment of "priority one" children — those considered to be at immediate risk of abuse — in Houston and the Gulf Coast.
State investigators are required to meet with the "priority one" children within 24 hours of an urgent report of possible mistreatment. Less-urgent cases require a visit within 72 hours.
CPS workers are also required to check in regularly with foster families and families receiving special services to keep their children at home.
State officials say they are coordinating with the American Red Cross and the Federal Emergency Management Agency to find those families. But a spokesman for the agency that oversees CPS said officials do not know how many families caseworkers have been unable to see because of the storm.
It wasn't easy to recruit enough foster families before Harvey, and child welfare advocates say it could become even more difficult.
“We know that capacity is a real issue and if you were a family that was in the pipeline to become a foster family and you just lost everything, you might put your plans to become a foster parent on hold to rebuild your home,” said Katie Olse, executive director of the Texas Alliance of Child and Family Services.
Meanwhile, two residential treatment centers — homes for abused and neglected Texas children with behavioral, emotional and mental health needs — won’t reopen and dozens of children have been sent elsewhere for treatment.
Child welfare advocates are already worried about how many current and potential foster families may be unable to care for children as they rebuild in Harvey-impacted areas.
Sarah Crockett, public policy coordinator for Texas CASA, a non-profit helping represent abused and neglected children in court, said the state is “probably going to have a huge capacity crisis that’s significantly worse” in the months after Harvey. She pointed out the lack of foster homes available is why children have slept in CPS offices.
“We can’t blame foster and kinship care families who put in their notice because they’re living in hotels and rebuilding their lives,” Crockett said.