Foster Parents: Texas Child Welfare System Remains Broken
By Caitlin Davis
Kathleen Ender was just 21 when she began the process of becoming a foster parent after the idea of parenting foster children appeared in her dreams again and again.
Enders, chief program officer at National Angels, well equipped emotionally and armed with experience, deeply believed in the beauty of being able to love a child as one’s own while caring for them for a time.
After the girl left Enders’ home, she was placed in a treatment facility. Enders had to get court ordered approval to see the girl, despite being licensed by the state, had previously fostered the girl and worked in foster care. Enders knew she was a safe person and could bring a sense of security to the girl.
Yet the bureaucracy surrounding the foster care system made it difficult to care for her while giving her a sense of normal life.
“There are a lot of unnecessary complications,” Enders said. “The system is very challenged. I think there’s just too much red tape. These kids struggle with normalcy and relational permanency.”
Enders believes bureaucracy, limited resources, strict procedures and social worker turnover complicates the foster care system.
“What CPS has to do as far as procedure creates unnecessary trauma, like kids getting picked up from school and someone shows up in a suit to take them, and they don’t get to say goodbye,” Enders said. “The removal itself can be more traumatizing.”
As the foster care system is overwhelmed and overworked, foster care systems have been privatized in one form to another in 28 other states in some form. A judge first ordered the overhaul of the Texas child welfare system in December 2015, the year before 4-year-old Leiliana Wright was brutally murdered by her mother’s boyfriend, a sensational case that grabbed news headlines and lawmakers’ attention. Wright’s grandparents sent pictures of bruises on the child to Child Protective Services, yet the assigned CPS case worker was overworked and unable to quickly investigate the case before Wright was beaten to death.
The state realized after Leiliana Wright’s tragic murder, measures to repair the foster care system were too little, too late. In 2017, Texas legislators realized a drastic change was mandatory: the privatization of the foster care system. Senate Bill 11, Community-Based Care, was created to give SSCC, Single Source Continuum Contractors, sole responsibility for case management with government oversight.
Like half a decade ago, in February of this year, 186 children across Texas were sleeping in offices for two or more nights due to the lack of foster homes, the Houston Chronicle reported. More placements for foster children are needed, though the emotional, fiscal and physical toll on foster families may deter individuals from taking in foster children.
Foster parents Kristen Moura and her husband were placed with two children. She says the most difficult aspect is the emotional difficulties, though she believes the monthly payments to foster families are definitely inadequate to realistically cover the costs.
“Fostering is emotionally and physically hard,” Moura said. “It was the hardest season for us emotionally. We had a higher needs child who had a lot of trauma. The emotional toll of what’s actually happening behind the scenes isn’t often shown and a lot of parents don’t feel heard.”
Moura and her husband were assigned an investigator, rather than a caseworker, who had been working for 48 hours straight when they went through the state directly. As a result, Moura said, many things get dropped through the cracks.
“Everyone’s overworked and there aren’t enough foster families,” Moura said. “There aren’t enough people working for the state in the foster care system. No agency will be perfect … but the foster care system in general is flawed and terrible.”
Community-Based Care divided the state into 11 regions consisting of 17 service areas with a single nonprofit contractor for each. Only four service areas were currently active before Region 8b was awarded to BELONG, a division of St. Jude’s Ranch for Children, on April 1. SJRC will serve Region 8b, the 27 counties surrounding Bexar County, which is already part of CBC as Region 8a.
In contrast to other state privatization efforts, Texas only contracts with nonprofit organizations rather than for-profit. Other states such as Florida and Alabama had major issues with for-profit contractors, according to a 2017 Senate report investigating the issues related to the privatization of foster care.
Critics argue that privatization will not provide the state oversight and accountability necessary. Privatization could be difficult due the differences between nonprofit organizations who will be responsible for the foster care systems in their regions.
“It’s minimizing what CPS does so hopefully they can do it better,” Enders said. “It could make a bad situation worse or it could make it better. It’s hard to tell. We don’t know how it’s going to work out. In our region, there are probably around 20 different agencies, all with slight differences.”
Supporters of privatization say the move to privatization in Texas will bring specialized knowledge and care to children and provide a localized approach.
“This is a big step for South Texas as we expand CBC statewide,” DFPS Commissioner Jaime Masters told DFPS. “Each child in foster care belongs to a community, a town or a city. It follows, then, that the housing, care and any necessary treatment of these vulnerable children and young people should come from those communities, with state oversight.”
It has been four years since privatization was initiated. Texas learned from the flaws in the privatization initiatives of other states, yet many hurdles remain on the long road ahead to repairing the foster care system. Only time will tell if privatization will cut bureaucratic procedures and prove to be the successful long-term solution Texas foster children so desperately need.