Despite being mired in a federal lawsuit largely focused on children in group placements, the state’s child welfare agency seems likely to give up federal funds rather than meet new requirements for residential foster care.
The Family First Prevention Services Act is slated to take effect in the state next fall, just months after Texas’ legislative session. Because the state’s legislators meet every other year, it will be a race against the clock to implement changes to continue to receive federal funds tied to poor children who enter the child welfare system.
“We’re going to lose some money when the law takes effect in October 2021, but the question is how much,” said Kate Murphy, senior child welfare policy associate at the nonprofit Texans Care for Children.
The state’s Department of Family and Protective Services (DFPS) released its strategic plan for implementation of the Family First Act this month. The state estimates that about $26 million annually would be lost if the state fails to implement upgrades to its congregate care facilities, a small fraction of the state’s annual $3.8 billion child welfare spending that includes state and federal funds.
Still, the state is seeing its budget squeezed by the pandemic’s disastrous effect on the economy. In the midst of the federal courts hammering the state licensing body, in June the Texas Health and Human Services Commission proposed a $130 million budget cut — a proactive attempt to avoid deeper cuts. According to a report by the Austin American-Statesman, the budget cuts “could delay timely investigations of abuse, neglect and exploitation.”
The plan outlines how the state could spend $50 million in federal transition funds, and largely allocates that money toward new and expanded preventive services.
Some of that includes tapping into existing programs like Family Based Safety Services, which provides in-home support for parents who have been investigated by CPS, and prevention and early intervention services that support families before they get involved with the child welfare system.
In addition to a focus on preventive services to keep kids from entering foster care, Family First aims to reduce the use of congregate care settings, which have been shown to produce negative outcomes for some children and are often used for foster youth who don’t require an intensive level of care.
Texas uses residential foster care for more youth than any state, including California, which typically has 20,000 more youth in care. About 12% of Texas foster youth live in residential treatment centers and other types of institutional settings, according the most recent federal data from the Adoption and Foster Care Analysis and Reporting System.
And it’s been a focus of the yearslong class action lawsuit against the state for the failures of its system. U.S. District Judge Janis Jack has found that children in these placements are often abused and neglected without repercussion, investigations into these facilities are subpar, and facilities continue to operate, even in the case of egregious abuse and preventable deaths of children.
“A lot of what we’ve heard in federal hearings has been pretty astounding, it’s tragic — heartbreaking stories about kids getting hurt and dying in the state’s care, often in residential settings,” Murphy said. “These types of tragedies have persisted for years and we haven’t fixed the problems yet.”
Earlier this month, Jack held DFPS and the Texas Health and Human Services Commission, the state licensing agency, in contempt of court for failing to comply with orders to improve conditions at the facilities.
The Family First Act would cut off federal funds for congregate care placements after two weeks, with some notable exceptions, including providers who become licensed as qualified residential treatment programs, or QRTPs. Such programs must be accredited, employ on-call nursing staff and include after-care plans for youth who are returned home from group settings. If a youth is placed in one of these programs, the state can receive federal funds past the two-week limit as long as a judge has signed off on the continuation of the placement.
The state’s current strategic plan states that the level of structure involved in a QRTP “would not be necessary for the majority of children and youth receiving treatment/therapeutic services in the foster care system,” and that “directing children and youth to this type of placement, when a less restrictive setting is appropriate and available, seems counter to their individual best interest.”
Texas doesn’t have a single residential treatment center that could qualify as a QRTP, and the state found that 25 of 94 facilities that responded to a survey aren’t yet seeking to be accredited at that higher standard of care.
As a result, the state is at risk of losing federal funding just as it forecasts a severe shortage of placements for high-needs children next year.
In its strategic plan, the state proposed the creation of a single, new facility that meets the higher
Going forward, several legislative committees will review the state’s budget plan ahead of the new Legislative session that begins in January.