Child welfare reform clears Texas Senate
After immigration tiff, House gives initial OK to two bills to fix system.
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.
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.