Child wel­fare re­form clears Texas Se­nate

Af­ter im­mi­gra­tion tiff, House gives ini­tial OK to two bills to fix sys­tem.

Austin American-Statesman - - FRONT PAGE - By Julie Chang jchang@states­man.com

The Texas Se­nate unan­i­mously approved sweep­ing leg­is­la­tion Wed­nes­day to fix the state’s trou­bled child wel­fare sys­tem, in­clud­ing a pro­vi­sion to test pri­va­tiz­ing key fos­ter care ser­vices.

Mean­while, the House gave ini­tial ap­proval Wed­nes­day to two bills to fix the sys­tem, but not be­fore a heated de­bate over whether unau­tho­rized im­mi­grants should be ex­cluded from a mea­sure that would boost pay for low-in­come fos­ter fam­i­lies car­ing for a fos­ter child who is a rel­a­tive.

“Here we are start­ing off a pro­gram right off the bat and pay­ing monies ... to some­body who is not a doc­u­mented cit­i­zen. I have a hard time with that,” said state Rep. Mark Keough, R-The Wood­lands, who pro­posed an amend­ment to House Bill 4 to ex­clude peo­ple lack­ing le­gal im­mi­gra­tion sta­tus.

Sev­eral Democrats ac­cused Keough, a for­mer car deal­er­ship sales man­ager, of be­ing racist and a hyp­ocrite for do­ing busi­ness with at least one per­son in the coun­try il­le­gally, and for putting pol­i­tics be­fore vul­ner­a­ble chil­dren.

State Rep. Rafael Anchia, D-Dal­las, the most vo­cally op­posed to

Keough’s pro­posal, said it was shame­ful that the House de­scended into an il­le­gal im­mi­gra­tion de­bate on the first day of real busi­ness for the cham­ber this ses­sion.

“When we got up this morn­ing, we thought we were go­ing to come here and talk about kids and how we’re go­ing to pro­tect kids. The de­bate has now turned into an im­mi­gra­tion de­bate,” Anchia said. “These kids ... are in­no­cent. They don’t get to pick who their par­ents are, who their ex­tended fam­ily are, who their care­givers are. They’re just try­ing to sur­vive.”

State Rep. Byron Cook, R-Cor­si­cana, also was un­happy with Keough’s amend­ment.

“I’m pretty heart­bro­ken to be part of this to­day. We came here to take care of chil­dren, chil­dren that ... can’t help their cir­cum­stance. If we put chil­dren first, we wouldn’t be ob­ses­sive about who’s pro­vid­ing the care,” Cook said.

Af­ter pro­claim­ing that he was not a racist, Keough with­drew his amend­ment, and House mem­bers gave unan­i­mous ini­tial ap­proval of HB 4.

Un­der the bill filed by state Rep. Cindy Burkett, R-Gar­land, fam­i­lies mak­ing no more than 300 per­cent of the fed­eral poverty level — or $72,750 for a fam­ily of four, ac­cord­ing to 2016 fed­eral guide­lines — could re­ceive about $4,200 per year per child. That would only ap­ply for peo­ple with fos­ter chil­dren who are also their fam­ily mem­bers.

The cost to the state would be $32.5 mil­lion over the next two years.

Now, such fam­i­lies are el­i­gi­ble to re­ceive only a one-time pay­ment of up to $1,000 for the old­est child in a sib­ling group and $495 for each ad­di­tional child and an an­nual pay­ment of up to $500 per child for child-re­lated ex­penses.

House mem­bers on Wed­nes­day also gave ini­tial unan­i­mous ap­proval to House Bill 5, filed by Rep. James Frank, R-Wi­chita Falls. It would make the Depart­ment of Fam­ily and Pro­tec­tive Ser­vices, which over­sees the fos­ter care sys­tem and Child Pro­tec­tive Ser­vices, its own agency.

Frank said that the move would al­low the depart­ment, which is cur­rently un­der the Health and Hu­man Ser­vices Com­mis­sion, to make quicker de­ci­sions about child safety with­out ad­min­is­tra­tive red tape.

On the Se­nate side, law­mak­ers approved mov­ing Se­nate Bill 11, along with nine small changes, to the House for its con­sid­er­a­tion.

Filed by Sen. Charles Sch­w­ert­ner, R-Ge­orge­town, the leg­is­la­tion would, among other things:

■ En­sure that fos­ter chil­dren are screened and treated for health is­sues soon af­ter they en­ter the state’s care.

■ Mon­i­tor and cre­ate a plan to ad­dress any fos­ter home short­ages.

■ Re­quire a sys­tem that al­lows of­fi­cials to iden­tify geo­graphic ar­eas that have high risks of child abuse or ne­glect and tar­get ser­vices there.

■ Cre­ate a pro­gram to test pri­va­tiz­ing many fos­ter care ser­vices, pri­mar­ily turn­ing case man­age­ment over from the state to non­prof­its.

Sch­w­ert­ner fielded ques­tions from fel­low sen­a­tors about how the bill would pro­tect fos­ter chil­dren from con­flicts of in­ter­est by non­prof­its han­dling case man­age­ment. Dur­ing a com­mit­tee hear­ing on the bill last month, Scott McCown, a re­tired state dis­trict judge, told law­mak­ers he was con­cerned that the non­prof­its’ fi­nan­cial in­ter­ests wouldn’t trans­late into the fos­ter child’s best in­ter­est.

Sch­w­ert­ner said Wed­nes­day the bill re­tains the state as the fos­ter child’s guardian and re­quires a non­profit to cre­ate a plan that addresses how it would avoid con­flicts of in­ter­est and would pe­nal­ize non­prof­its that don’t meet stan­dards.

McCown told the Amer­i­can-States­man on Wed­nes­day that the pro­vi­sions don’t do enough.

“SB 11 calls for a ‘plan’ to ad­dress con­flicts of in­ter­est. If there was such a plan, SB 11 could have adopted it. The con­flict is baked into the bill,” McCown said.

Even so, the bill has gar­nered bi­par­ti­san sup­port as well as that of Gov. Greg Ab­bott, who has made fix­ing the state’s child wel­fare sys­tem one of four emer­gency items.

The fo­cus on child wel­fare comes as child abuse deaths, high staff turnover rates and fail­ure of state work­ers to see pos­si­bly abused chil­dren in a timely man­ner have plagued the Depart­ment of Fam­ily and Pro­tec­tive Ser­vices. The state is also fight­ing a court de­ci­sion by a fed­eral judge or­der­ing mas­sive changes in the fos­ter care sys­tem.

“To­day’s ac­tions by the House and Se­nate are a sig­nif­i­cant first step to­ward re­form­ing the child wel­fare sys­tem and creat­ing a cul­ture that gives ev­ery child a chance to not only sur­vive, but thrive in Texas,” Ab­bott said in a state­ment.

RI­CARDO B. BRAZZIELL / AMER­I­CAN-STATES­MAN

State Sen. Charles Sch­w­ert­ner, R-Ge­orge­town, on Wed­nes­day won ap­proval for his Se­nate Bill 11 con­cern­ing child wel­fare, which was sent to the state House for con­sid­er­a­tion. The House gave pre­lim­i­nary OK to two bills to re­form the sys­tem.

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