Filling in the gaps of Williamson County's child foster care system

Commissioner-led group seeks solutions for local improvements

Amid growing concern for the state's foster care system, a task force in Williamson County is considering improvements that can be made on a local level.

According to the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services, in the past two years there have been four abuse- or neglect-related deaths of children who were placed in foster care in Williamson County or who were from the county.

"There's around 500 kids in foster care in Williamson County at any given time," Precinct 1 County Commissioner Lisa Birkman said. "I think a lot of people hear the stories of children dying, and they're appalled by it like everyone else but they really don't know what to do. I'm hoping we can get the message out of things you can do."

A task force set up by Birkman held its first meeting Sept. 25 to discuss the state of the foster care system in Williamson County and where gaps in care have developed. In its second meeting Oct. 10 the members identified how to close those gaps.

The caseworker turnover rate was identified as a major issue in the foster care system, but the task force identified a lack of communication and collaboration among organizations to be the root of the county's problems.

"There's a number of resources in the community that are all working parallel on a lot of public welfare issues, but there's not cross-talk," attorney ad litem Robert Maier said. "Recently my wife provided me a list of the services that are available here, be it mental health, medical, food banks, pantries—these resources are out there. But we were talking about consolidating this into some sort of a centralized list."

Maier used himself as a prime example, admitting he learned about a valuable resource just by attending the first meeting.

In 2013 the Texas Legislature put emphasis on attorney ad litems—attorneys who provide legal services to children—to be responsible for the educational and medical needs of the children they are representing, in addition to their welfare and emotional needs, Maier said.

Each school district is required by state law to have a foster care liaison to help with communication between a foster family and the school district.

"We're the contact person if there's any specific question about students who are in foster care, mainly from our school staff," said Megan Lark, director of counseling and a foster care liaison for Leander ISD. "The biggest thing is knowing the resources that are available for the kids. It's a matter of just connecting them to the right resources."

Other task force members include school district representatives, foster families and organizations that work with foster children—many whom were also meeting for the first time through Birkman's task force.

"We have a lot of community resources just in Williamson County that we just don't know about," said Alisa De Luna, a task force member and executive director for the Williamson County Court Appointed Special Advocates, or CASA. "With the turnover in [DFPS Child Protective Services] sometimes the caseworkers just don't know [about available resources], and they don't make the requests of the child welfare board to get the assistance that a child or even sometimes the parents of the child need."

Turnover creates care gaps

The Stephen Group is a consulting firm that was selected by the Texas Health and Human Services Commission and DFPS in February to review CPS.

According to an assessment on CPS complied by The Stephen Group, CPS sees more than one-quarter of caseworkers leaving annually. Additionally, more than 43 percent of new employees leave within the first two years.

"One of the issues that the state has is that the CPS worker's average stay is nine months in CPS for a caseworker, and three months of that is training—so they're in the field six months before they leave," Birkman said. "If you had a list of all of those [resources] and keep it updated, that would be a huge help, and that's not something the state's going to do, but the county could host that on our website."

DFPS also recently underwent a periodical review by the state legislative Sunset Advisory Commission. As part of the review, which was completed in June, the commission identified CPS caseworker turnover as high priority.

The SAC is a means for the legislature to take a closer look at state agencies and assess the continuing needs of those agencies to exist. In addition to stating whether to continue or abolish an agency, SAC identifies problematic areas within the agency in a report that is released to the public.

The SAC is putting together a bill based on its findings that will be presented in the upcoming legislative session, which begins in January.

"Some of the critical issues are making sure that the coordination and education of resources and the coordination among the various entities involved in our foster care system—such as the CASA volunteers and the CPS caseworkers and, of course, our legal system and the interest groups—are concerned about the welfare of our children," state Sen. Charles Schwertner, R-Georgetown, said.

Schwertner and state Rep. Larry Gonzales, R-Round Rock, serve on the SAC. The two have also been working with Birkman and said they welcome input from the task force.

"I think it's helpful and critical that we get information from people on the ground," Schwertner said. "I'm keenly interested in the results of the task force and hearing from people that have to deal with this on a daily basis."

State Rep. Tony Dale, R-Cedar Park, who serves as a member on the legislative Select Committee on Child Protection, has also been working with the task force.

The committee was created last spring by House Speaker Joe Straus to study abuse and neglect fatalities in Texas and make recommendations for protection.

"My perspective is our committee is encouraging the Sunset Commission on some of the things related to CPS and what they should adopt," Dale said. "That Sunset bill is likely to pass, and that's probably the best vehicle for these things that need to be done legislatively instead of having a bunch of individual bills over here from members like me; it's basically a have-to-pass bill."

Although he said some of the task force's proposed changes do not require new laws, he still welcomes input at the task force meetings.

"Part of what I've learned from these meetings, I look at [the recommendations] and I can incorporate that into what I think needs to be done for CPS, so it's very helpful to me to get feedback, especially from people that are not just local but are directly involved," he said. "Unlike me—I'm at the policy level. I don't have foster kids; I don't have any interaction with the system, so it's different for me."

Finding a fix

One option being looked at to alleviate the problems in the Texas foster care system is the implementation of a computer program called Information Management Protecting Adults and Children in Texas.

The IMPACT program was built in 1996, and modernization would allow for records and information to be centralized in a Web application.

"IMPACT is very dated," said Jo Poenitzsch, executive assistant attorney to the county attorney. "The problem is that we don't have access as the county attorneys to this system, which would help tremendously in our cases if we could at any given point look into a case file [and] see what's been going on."

According to DFPS, IMPACT would help caseworkers document cases faster and spend more time with foster families.

Other gaps identified by the task force were a lack of mentor programs and resources to support foster and biological families as well as the state monetary reimbursement system for foster families.

Birkman said the county has not done anything like the task force for the foster care system in the past, but it has had one for the mental health system.

"Before I got on the court 10 years ago the commissioners decided the same sort of thing with mental health and formed a task force," she said. "That's been very successful. We're now one of the best mental health systems in the state."

The task force meets again Nov. 17, and although it is scheduled to be its final meeting, Birkman said she hopes to make the meetings a regular occurance.

Additionally, she said she will continue to work with state officials to convey the messages of the task force, and interested parties are encouraged to email state representatives and senators or testify in person when the SAC bill is presented.

"I think our role is to help define what is important to us in Williamson County," Birkman said.


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