Prevention would prevent another child protection crisis

Photo by Jennifer Whitney

Texas’ Child Protective Services and foster care system crises are like an impossible-to-control disease outbreak.

Lawmakers and Gov. Greg Abbott — who declared CPS an emergency item in his State of the State address — are trying to get the CPS epidemic under control. I applaud them: The $12,000 pay raises for frontline caseworkers and increased hiring recently approved by state leaders are desperately needed to stem rampant, costly employee turnover and ensure timely visits to threatened children.

But I worry that in dealing with the emergency, lawmakers are missing the antibiotic, the immunization, the most effective solution to CPS’s woes: Prevention.

In the budgets proposed by the House and Senate, state funding for direct delivery of two of our most effective family support programs — the Texas Home Visiting Program (THVP) and Nurse-Family Partnership (NFP) — is virtually eliminated.

These programs are evidence-based services to at-risk families that are proven to reduce incidences of maltreatment, improve parenting skills, help parents return to school or secure employment, lower the need for government safety-net programs, avoid special or remedial education and keep parents and children out of the criminal justice system, among many positive outcomes. These programs bring nurses or other professionals into homes — if invited by at-risk families — for valuable mentoring in parenting skills and help with other resources that more fortunate families might take for granted.

Budget writers are apparently counting on a big expansion in federal prevention dollars coming to Texas that will replace the dollars they want to cut. In the previous biennium, the state invested $7.9 million in THVP and $11.2 million in NFP. In the proposed budgets, these funds are cut by $9 million in the Senate and $11 million in the House.

This is a dangerous gamble. There is no assurance that the new federal administration will reauthorize the main source of funding for home visits — the Maternal, Infant, and Early Childhood Home Visiting Program. Also, the state must provide “Maintenance of Effort” to draw down those funds. Federal funding is tied to state funding; it doesn’t replace cuts, but drops when state spending drops.

Failure to properly fund prevention not only leads to human calamity, it also compounds the very fiscal crisis legislators seek to avoid. Both budget proposals anticipate CPS will cost more than $3.2 billion in the 2018-19 fiscal years, and according to Centers for Disease Control statistics, one year of abuse cases hammers Texas’ economy for an estimated $14 billion over the lifetimes of the victims, draining our legal, medical and education systems.

Taking the position that we only have the funds for CPS costs and not for prevention would be the equivalent of making minimum payments on a high-interest credit card because we don’t want to touch our savings account. That would be madness.

Today (February 7), the member organizations of the Child Protection Roundtable and the Texas Home Visiting Consortium — and many private citizens answering our call for help — will visit with legislators and rally at the Capitol. We hope to convince lawmakers to ramp up preventive home visiting services to reach thousands more families.

Our legislative leaders are taking proper initial corrective steps for CPS, but they must invest significantly more funds in cost-effective child abuse prevention. The governor warned lawmakers that they must not underfund the CPS fixes. If they do, Texas will continue grappling with ever-increasing expenditures for the agency and the concomitant health, law enforcement, and criminal justice costs. That will harm both children and taxpayers.

We shouldn’t just chase the CPS epidemic — let’s get ahead of it: Invest in prevention or watch more children suffer and pay dearly for it.

Madeline McClure

CEO, TexProtects