The Texas Legislature is ramping up its oversight of the state’s child welfare agency amid ongoing revelations of children harmed in government care and repeated condemnations from the federal courts.
Last month, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick launched a new “Special Committee on Child Protective Services,” and other committees in both chambers of the statehouse have announced they will hold hearings on a slate of child welfare issues, in preparation for next year’s legislative session.
The Texas Department of Family and Protective Services (DFPS) has been embroiled in a federal court case for more than a decade. Despite federal monitoring and numerous pledges to reform harmful practices, the agency has continued to struggle. Last summer, outrage grew over revelations that hundreds of foster children had been sleeping in CPS offices and hotel rooms because no proper homes could be found. At a January hearing, U.S. District Court Judge Janis Jack used the words “negligence” and “incompetence” to describe the state’s care of foster children.
“The Texas Senate is taking a strong stance on the need to hold DFPS accountable for its problems in carrying out its basic duties to ensure each child in the system remains safe while in custody and experiences a positive outcome,” state Sen. Lois Kolkhorst (R) said in a statement to The Imprint.
The state action is prompted in large part due to an exposé published in March by The Texas Tribune. The investigative report on a group home called The Refuge found that foster children who had been victims of human trafficking had been trafficked again by employees at the facility where the foster care system had placed them to receive specialized care and protection. The children were left at the Bastrop facility for more than a month after the abuse was first reported to the Department of Family and Protective Services, The Tribune reported.
In a March 11 statement announcing the special committee, Lt. Gov. Patrick drew attention to these revelations: “The work to reform DFPS has been ongoing for some time. But in light of the new trafficking allegations,” he noted, “the Texas Senate could not wait any longer to address the serious issues at the agency.”
Kolkhorst, who chairs the new special committee as well as the Senate Health and Human Services Committee, told The Imprint that lawmakers will seek answers to why the child protection agency continues to flail despite numerous public investments and repeated requests from lawmakers to track the outcomes of foster youth.
Notably absent from the list of issues up for review is another agency practice that has attracted harsh criticisms, from the White House to the U.S. Department of Justice, and an ongoing American Civil Liberties Union lawsuit: CPS investigations of parents allowing their transgender children to receive affirming health care. Those investigations follow a directive by Republican Gov. Greg Abbott with the support of DFPS Commissioner Jaime Masters.
Still, the Legislature’s focus on these issues was praised by Kate Murphy, senior policy associate with the advocacy group Texans Care for Children.
“We’re glad to see that the House and Senate are going to make foster care and child protection one of their priorities as they prepare for the next legislative session,” Murphy wrote in an email to The Imprint.
Murphy identified several specific areas with “the greatest potential for improvement” — bolstering support for families to avoid foster care removals, improving access to mental health services outside of the child welfare system and investing in kinship care.
Lt. Gov. Patrick said he instructed Kolkhorst to “pull no punches with agency leadership” in forthcoming committee hearings.
“If a conservatorship is needed to run the agency, then that is what needs to be done,” Patrick said.
Kolkhorst expressed dismay that, despite steady funding increases since 2017 — and an additional $120 million allocated just last year to find homes for the children stuck sleeping in offices — the problems continue to mount.
“While state funds are increased, unfortunately the pattern is the same: Each session the legislature adds more funds and resources, yet we see little measured progress and continued setbacks,” Kolkhorst said.
The Senate Health and Human Services Committee will examine why prior legislative reforms have not yet been implemented within the Department of Family and Protective Services, and look for signs of poor performance, according to a memo from the nonprofit Texans Care for Children. It will also study how other states approach the safety and well-being of foster youth to see where Texas’ system is falling short.
The House Human Services Committee is tasked with evaluating the ongoing crisis of foster children without placement and why foster youth too frequently become entangled in the juvenile and adult justice systems.
Each committee will develop a comprehensive report to inform lawmaking in the upcoming legislative session, which begins in January.