Abbott should call a special session to fix foster care

Photo by Todd Wiseman / Karolina Michalak

Finding that foster children are "shuttled through a system where rape, abuse, psychotropic medication, and instability are the norm," a federal court recently ruled that Texans are violating the constitutional rights of our foster children by subjecting them to an unreasonable risk of harm. Gov. Abbott should boldly call a special legislative session to reform foster care and protect these children.

Child Protective Services caseworkers are responsible for too many children to ensure their safety. The court found that one worker for 20 children is about as high as you can safely go. In Texas, though, about a third of workers have caseloads of 21 to 30 children. About a tenth have caseloads of 31 to 36 children — and some even have caseloads of 36 or more children.

Making matters worse, more than a quarter of the workforce turns over annually. Eyeballing it, Texas needs roughly 50 percent more caseworkers on the job, and we need them to stay on the job. To achieve that, we need to improve working conditions and increase pay to more than a teacher makes — from about $33,000 to $50,000.

Convincing a higher court that our foster care system should be graded a D instead of an F will not help our children.

The court also found that Texas does not have an adequate "placement array" — meaning enough basic homes, treatment homes and residential centers to match children's needs. In fact, children occasionally must spend the night in state office buildings. Attracting more foster parents requires recruiting, training and supporting them as part of a professional treatment team. To do that, we must change how we contract and increase foster care reimbursement rates.

As the court found, our placement shortage leads to other problems. Because of tight capacity, the division that regulates foster care doesn't adequately investigation child maltreatment or act against offending agencies. In other words, our fear that we will have no homes for children forces us to tolerate bad homes for children.

Tight capacity also means we must rely on foster group homes, which the court found are very dangerous. These homes are like those run by the Old Lady in the Shoe who had so many children she didn't know what to do. Up to 12 unrelated children of different ages, needs, and genders live in these homes without on duty staff around the clock. You can imagine what happens when the lights go out and the staff goes to sleep.

Despite this damning court ruling, the only step taken by our leadership so far is to appeal to a higher court. Convincing a higher court that our foster care system should be graded a D instead of an F will not help our children. Instead, we must reform our system.

Our instinct will be to look for cheap solutions, such as replacing leadership or reworking our practice model. We already have a strong commissioner, however, and such changes would only bring more turmoil. More important, if a system lacks a sufficient number of caseworkers and foster parents, neither the leadership nor the practice model much matter.

Another quick fix that some will propose is changing the agency "culture." In fact, the system is full of good people doing good work. The problems are the product of a lack of resources.

Some will suggest bringing fewer kids into the system. While strengthening family preservation is part of a solution, we already bring children into care at a substantially lower rate than the national average. We aren't going to close our resource gap by taking fewer children into care.

Some may propose outsourcing to private contractors such as we are doing in an innovative program called Foster Care Redesign. While Foster Care Redesign is promising, the first private contractor walked away because the state paid too little to do the job, and the second is also losing money.

To make any plan work, we must invest several hundred million additional dollars in protecting our kids. With almost $10 billion in the Rainy Day Fund and a fundamentally strong economy, we can afford it. Instead of fighting in court while children suffer, the governor and the Legislature should act now.

F. Scott McCown

Director of the Children's Rights Clinic at UT Law