Time for child-focused foster care reform

Photo by Todd Wiseman

The name and face of Leiliana Wright have become too familiar to people across Texas. Her story has been in the media since she suffered a horrible death in March at the age of four, and her loss has been a catalyst for public outrage over the deaths of too many other children who, like Leliliana, were involved with Child Protective Services.

The Department of Family and Protective Services, which oversees Child Protective Services, is in turmoil, struggling with how to repair an unsound system that has failed to protect too many children. During this period of instability, Texas Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASA) has remained unwavering in our mission to support our 72 local volunteer advocacy programs and advocate for effective public policy for children in the child protection system.

We believe steps to transform the system must be governed by the best interests of the child, so we urge state leaders to build reform efforts based on the following child-centered recommendations.

Create a Trauma-informed System

Every child who enters the child protection system has experienced trauma, whether from abuse or neglect by their families or as a result of separation from their families after removal from their homes.

Trauma’s impact on developing children and youth can cause both short- and long-term problems, including learning difficulties, behavior problems, impaired relationships and poor social and emotional competence. Perhaps the biggest tragedy is that the system itself often subjects these children to further trauma.

Recommendation: The entire child protection system must become more trauma-informed in order for children to have the opportunity to heal and experience the permanency and positive outcomes they deserve.

Improve Foster Care Practices

Texas faces three equally troubling problems with our paid foster care system. First, foster care providers face a financial disincentive to work toward healing high-needs children — currently, the system pays providers higher rates for children who display challenging behaviors, rather than rewarding them for healing children and reducing these behaviors.

Secondly, we simply do not have sufficient capacity to appropriately house and care for the number of children removed from their parents and families. Our current capacity crisis has forced children to sleep in state offices or hotels under the oversight of already overworked CPS staff.

Finally, because of these shortages and the constant pressure on the system, we are tearing children out of their home communities and placing them far away from family, friends and other supports in order to access available placement beds. Sixty percent of children in the system are placed outside their home county, and 20 percent are placed in another CPS region.

Such distant placements add to the trauma that children experience and can diminish their academic progress in school and often impede or prevent efforts to reunify families.

Recommendation: State leaders need to align financial incentives with the types of healing outcomes that enable children to recover from trauma and lead successful lives. They also need to expand capacity and create new policies that better enable children to be placed in their home communities.

Assure Adequate Investigations for Children in Foster Care

CPS has well-trained investigators who generally conduct thorough child abuse and neglect investigations (provided they have manageable caseloads). However, when abuse or neglect allegations are made with regard to children in state-licensed foster homes or other licensed facilities, those investigations are performed by employees of the Residential Child Care Licensing (RCCL) division of DFPS.

These employees are trained to enforce minimum-standard licensing regulations, not to investigate allegations of abuse or neglect. Consequently, these investigations are inadequate and do not properly protect children in foster care.

Recommendation: State law or agency practice needs to be changed so that all abuse and neglect investigations are conducted by highly trained CPS investigators.

While these are just three of the critical issues that Texas CASA will champion during the 85th Legislative Session, all of our policy priorities are focused on improving outcomes for Texas’ most vulnerable children. During this uncertain time, it is more important than ever that the child welfare community come together to ensure that children's needs come first, providing them with the same opportunity to thrive as any other child.

Together, we can ensure a safe, positive future for all Texas children.

Vicki Spriggs