Legislation, volunteers work to curb foster care crisis

The future of foster care in Texas has been teetering towards the brink of a full- blown crisis.

Overworked caseworkers, children sleeping in Child Protective Services (CPS) offices due to a shortage of foster beds and abuses within the system are just a few of the major issues concerning child welfare advocates and state leaders.

“It became an issue statewide as children kept dying,” said San Marcos resident John Barthel, a volunteer special advocate for the Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASA).

CASA volunteer Rosa Hernandez reads to her CASA children at the CASA of Central Texas Summer book fair. Puppy McKenna from CASA’s partners at Canine Classmates was also there. (courtesy photo)

CASA is a volunteer program that focuses on helping children in the foster care system.

Volunteers handle one case at a time, as opposed to CPS caseworkers, who can be tasked with 20-30 cases simultaneously.

CASA provides six weeks of training for all volunteers, starting with legal issues and working with different cultures volunteers may encounter.

Volunteers also train on handling different levels of child development as well as any drug and alcohol issues they may come across.

Barthel, now retired, said that he happened to witness another CASA class “graduating” and realized the need for volunteers.

Despite their best efforts, groups such as CASA find the gap between children in need and people available to help them continues to grow.

“Each year, we see a growth in population in our four-county service area of Caldwell, Comal, Guadalupe and Hays counties,” said Eloise Hudson, Community Relations Coordinator of CASA. “With the population growth, the number of children coming in to state care because of abuse has also increased.”

The number of children also outnumbers the foster beds, and children are sometimes required to sleep in the offices of CPS workers.

In one such case, a teen that was staying at an office in Houston ran away, only to be struck and killed by a car.

Children face other risks in the system including abuse, often at the hands of other foster children.

“I’ve had a couple of times where I shake my head a little bit,” said Lisa Metzler, a three year volunteer special advocate for CASA. “How does that happen to a kid?”

Homelessness and sex trafficking are also major risks for children in the system.

According to a recent University of Texas study, of the 79,000 child sex trafficking victims estimated to be in the state, a vast majority were either in foster care or had previous contact with CPS.

Lawmakers have introduced 88 pieces of legislation to help curb the crisis, though only 21 of these passed. It’s lead to over 270 changes in language of Texas statutes.

Children’s rights advocates initiated these changes following a 2011 lawsuit. The suit alleged that the Texas foster care system had violated the constitutional rights of the children within their care by moving them repeatedly and keeping them in unsafe care.

In December 2015, U.S. District Judge Janis Graham ruled that the Texas Department of Family Protective Services (TDFPS) was “broken” in a 255-page ruling and demanded an overhaul of the system.

The DFPS released data in October 2016 showing that on any given day in Texas, CPS workers were failing to check on nearly 1,000 of the state’s highest priority kids who face immediate threats of sexual of physical abuse.

The agency claims they have since brought that number down to 450. However, data also showed that an additional 1,800 children were being checked on but not within the required 24-hour time frame required by law.

It is estimated that nearly one-third of investigative workers leave each year due to the gratuitous nature of their work, leading to the delays in investigations.

“To see that on a day-to-day basis, I can see how people burn out,” said Metzler

Two court appointed special masters issued recommendations to fix the problems, though the state of Texas objected to all recommendations.

However, the court rebuked the state’s objections and Texas was ordered to implement their recommendations.

These recommendations included a pay increase to current workers and the employment of over 800 more to help curb the gap between the number of children in the system and the workers available.

On May 31, Governor Greg Abbott signed four bills into law aimed to increase the effectiveness of DFPS services and accountability; these bills will go into effect September 1.

House Bill 5 makes the DPFS a stand-alone agency apart from the Health and Human Services Commission in order for the DFPS to make decision and put them into action more quickly.

While it remains to be seen if these bills will indeed help ease the burden upon DFPS, there are still opportunities for people to help the current situation by joining organizations like CASA.

“Even if it’s not for you pass the word,” said Metzler, “All you need is to qualify is care.”

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