Best care for foster kids comes from their communities — not from Austin

Spurred by federal court findings and high-profile failures indicating that Texas Child Protective Services removes children who would be better off at home and often does children more harm than good, Texas legislators once again have the unenviable task of reforming the state's child welfare system. Reforming CPS has become an obligatory biennial task for the Legislature. Nevertheless, the agency has grown faster than the number of children it serves while outcomes for those children have gotten worse.

Not all the news is bad, however. Foster Care Redesign has been a welcome bright spot in a sea of disappointment surrounding the agency. Launched as part of CPS reform a decade ago, Redesign utilizes a community-based model of care for serving families at risk. This model, which transformed Florida child welfare services, has been successfully piloted in the CPS catchment area around Fort Worth since 2013. Based on its success there, the model should be expanded in both scope and mission without delay—returning the primary care of children to communities where they live.

Texans recognize that the problems at CPS are not with the hardworking people in the agency but are the natural result of legacy thinking, which trusts the state to institutionalize, engineer and manage families. The instinctual desire to care for children and the organic nature of family and community are important features of a protective ecosystem. As caregivers, teachers and parents, we understand that government cannot replicate or replace these features. We see children in the context of their families, and we see families in the context of the communities in which they live. The legacy system seeks to separate these.

For too long our system has operated under the mistaken belief that it could address the best interests of children without addressing the interests and needs of their parents and their families. CPS cannot offer what children need: family. No matter how well a bureaucracy functions, it cannot be a family. Instead of micromanaging, Texas should promote the interests of families and children by transferring case management to community providers and encouraging results-based innovation. Ideally, the statewide agency should be limited to policymaking and oversight, with no direct family contact.

Crucial front-line workers engaged in the fortification of families and of children need flexibility to effectively connect families with community resources. Unfortunately, community-based agencies are currently charged with producing the results that CPS seems incapable of, without the authority to make the case management decisions necessary to do so. Cases cannot be managed out of Austin but require the local resources and know-how of community partners and a system that rewards excellence and efficiency.

Senate Bill 11, filed Dec. 7, would transfer case management responsibilities to community service contractors once CPS has judged them up to the task. The bill would also shift the primary responsibility for services before a child comes into foster care and after the child is adopted to community service contractors in two pilot regions. The transfer of these responsibilities from CPS to community providers is crucial for the success of Foster Care Redesign and is good for kids.

SB 11 recognizes what we intuitively know: Decision making cannot be separated from service delivery. Case management and service delivery should be coordinated by community-based lead agencies and provided through local resource networks. Decisions affecting families and children are best made as close as possible to the communities where they live.

The system promised by SB 11 takes advantage of existing networks, increases quality, and streamlines delivery by returning the care of children to their own communities. While the bill does not provide the structural reform needed to completely overhaul the state agency, it is a breath of fresh air in what has been a vacuum of stagnant thinking surrounding agency reform — a promising start to an important session for Texas families.

Disclosure: The Texas Public Policy Foundation has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune. A complete list of Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here.

Brandon J. Logan

Director, Center for Families and Children, Texas Public Policy Foundation