Texas foster care system overflowing despite reforms
Foster families find both meaning and challenges working with the system
Texas trial lawyer Brandon Logan was filing family law cases when he learned that the judge asked any family lawyers to consider also working with child protection cases. “I had never heard of this area of law,” he said. “So, you know, I got on the list … and found meaning in the law that I hadn’t found before.”
That was about 18 years ago. Logan began focusing on child welfare law but found himself frustrated: “It seemed like we were all fighting the system, that the system was so dysfunctional that we couldn’t actually get the best outcomes for kids.”
Texas’ foster care system faces a capacity crisis. As of July, 27,034 children needed an out-of-home placement, also called substitute care. About 15,000 of those were in foster care, with the rest lived with relatives, adoptive families, or independently. In June, 524 youth had no placement, meaning that there was no licensed home or facility available for them. One year earlier, that number was 46. Children without placements often sleep in hotels or emergency shelters. In June, Gov. Greg Abbott signed a law mandating children could not spend the night in state offices.
The Texas Department of Family and Protective Services (DFPS) is making sweeping changes in response to a judge’s order in a lawsuit filed against the state in 2011. The nonprofit group Children’s Rights sued over concerns the department did not sufficiently supervise the children in its care. The lawsuit contends that Texas employed too few caseworkers, some group homes did not have enough properly trained staff, and many children were separated from siblings or moved out of their county when they entered care due to the lack of available placements.
The court mandated changes such as having awake supervision around the clock in group homes and providing the court with access to all DFPS records and information about employee caseloads. The orders also included a provision for heightened monitoring, with court-appointed monitors dropping in unannounced to check on providers—sometimes even in the middle of the night.
Texas experts on child welfare say reform was needed, but they are concerned some of the efforts go overboard. “They’re using a sledgehammer when they should be using a scalpel,” said Andrew Brown, distinguished senior fellow of child and family policy at the Texas Public Policy Foundation.
While Brown agreed that some recently shuttered residential treatment facilities needed to be closed, he said the state should distinguish between major safety issues and smaller concerns that don’t merit drastic measures. He said that some facilities voluntarily closed because “they feel that they’re in a no-win situation.”
Buckner Foster Care and Adoption oversees more than 300 foster families across the state of Texas. Senior director for foster care and adoption Debbie Sceroler said the agency saw a slight decrease in the number of foster families in 2020.
“If you take into consideration the pandemic, the lawsuit, the more heightened monitoring that is placed on agencies right now due to the lawsuit, it’s just a perfect storm,” she said.
Stephanie Baskin in Mesquite, Texas, knew she wanted to be a foster parent since before she and her husband, Buck, married. A licensed master social worker, Baskin worked with youth aging out of foster care after she finished graduate school. Buckner required couples to be married for two years before fostering, so Buck and Stephanie started the certification process when they had been married for 18 months. Since then, the Baskins have fostered close to 20 children and adopted two, James and Niki. The couple also has one biological daughter, Selah. Their current foster children bring the number of kids in their house to five, ages 3 to 9.
Baskin said she has felt the effects of changes in the system. “There’s people that come around and do these random audits, and they were here for like three hours,” she said. “Things like that are just stressful.” She understands the importance of oversight but said every added rule feels like a lot to families.
Despite the challenges, Baskin encourages other families to foster. She tells interested families to find a foster family and shadow them, babysit for them, or ask for more information. “It’s been real hard, but we love it,” she said. “It always has been worth the hard.”
Texas Rep. James Frank and his wife, Alisha, fostered and adopted two of their six sons. Frank has championed the state’s transition to community-based care, which gives local non-profits some of the responsibilities previously carried out by state agencies. These local organizations, under contract with the state, become responsible for the care of the child while the state retains the role of determining if a child enters care. Frank said the model encourages clear responsibility and accountability: “You know exactly what area the problem is in, and I would tell you that we are much more willing to hold, in this case, other people accountable sometimes than the [state] agency holds itself accountable.”
Logan returned to school for a doctorate in family studies. He helped design the bill to launch community-based care in the state, then changed careers: “Once it passed, I thought, well, I’m going to go actually see this thing through,” he said. He was the executive director at 2Ingage, the community-based care contractor in Abilene, before moving to Midland, Texas, to work with One Accord for Kids as the area prepares to implement community-based care.
Logan sometimes thinks about the financial benefits of returning to practicing law, but foster care work can be hard to leave: “Once you get started, you know, it’s something that takes ahold of you.”
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