State, nonprofits strive to meet child welfare demand

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While the state has already bumped up funding to address issues with its overloaded foster care system, Montgomery County is still seeing increasing numbers of children enter Texas’ Child Protective Services.

In response to the child welfare crisis, the Legislative Budget Board approved $150 million in emergency funding in December 2016 for the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services to hire 829 new caseworkers statewide and to give a $12,000 annual salary increase to existing caseworkers.

Following the extra funding and additional DFPS regulations put into place in 2017, staff turnover rates improved and Montgomery County CPS investigators saw a decreased workload, according to state data. This year, local entities are advocating legislation for more funding, training and education as the demand for child welfare services in Texas is still growing.

Three years ago CPS caseworkers were leaving their jobs at excessive rates, and caseloads were so high it was difficult for caseworkers to check on some vulnerable children in a timely manner.

Conroe City Council Member Raymond McDonald and his wife Teresa registered to be foster parents in the early 2000s. Since then, they have adopted eight children from the child welfare system.

“CPS is overwhelmed with the amount of kids that they’ve got,” McDonald said.

About 900 children in Montgomery County will age out of the foster  care system in the next four years according to Conroe-based nonprofit Angel Reach, which helps provide transitional housing and employment services to them.

“[Statistics] show that about 50 percent will end up homeless, 27 percent will end up incarcerated and about 55 percent end up seriously addicted to something,” Angel Reach Executive Director Jean Radach said. “The young women, by the time they turn 21, 60 percent of them will be pregnant … and about 70 percent of those kids end up back in the CPS system. That’s our goal—to [break]that generational cycle.”

Harryl Hale, regional foster and adopt recruiter for the DFPS, said although he has witnessed more people interested in fostering or adopting, more families are still needed to match the growing number of children entering the state foster care system.

“Some families want to adopt and not foster, and that poses a problem for us because we’re trying to build our infrastructure for more foster homes,” Hale said.

Addressing the problem locally

In 2018, 272 children entered foster care in Montgomery County—up from 146 in 2016; and 236 foster and adoptive homes were registered through the DFPS, according to state data.

Following the state’s funding increase in 2016, the average monthly caseloads in Montgomery County dropped from 21.7 in 2016 to 14.5 in 2018, according to state data. Additionally, the caseworker turnover rate in Montgomery County decreased from 25.9 percent in 2016 to 16.4 percent in 2018.

Although improvements have been made within Texas’ child welfare system, more cases of child abuse and neglect are being reported annually. According to state data, 6,920 cases of child abuse were reported in Montgomery County in 2017, up 27.2 percent from 5,036 reported cases in 2013.

Radach said this change can be seen in part due to legislative changes.

“[The number is increasing] because CPS is doing a better job at actually getting staffed. They’re putting more people in place, and they’re paying their people more so we have less turnover,” Radach said. “We’re seeing the child abuse cases earlier, but that makes our [case]numbers bigger.”

The DFPS relies heavily on private agencies to provide therapeutic homes, high-needs homes and homes that can accommodate special needs, Patel said. While there were 236 foster and adoptive homes licensed through the DFPS in the county in 2018, there were 2,432 private-agency homes.

Additionally, advocates in Montgomery County are pushing for better training and education for both caseworkers and foster parents as the number of CPS cases increase.

“There needs to be required trauma training for caseworkers and foster families,” said Cindy Mericle, executive director of Love Fosters Hope, a Montgomery County-based nonprofit that provides camps, mentoring and outreach programs to foster children. “There’s been so much research on how trauma impacts these kids, and if everyone involved understood trauma better, they’re going to do a better job.”

Once a youth in foster care ages out at 18 years old, CPS and local community organizations step in to help with housing, employment and other services.

“I think one of the dilemmas is that when they age out as young adults, they’re legally adults, so they’re not minors and they’re not protected under the statute being minors,” Hale said.

To help children transition from the welfare system, Hale said the DFPS has programs such as Preparation for Adult Living, or PALs.

The program allows those 16 years and older to participate in a program that teaches them independent-living skills such as financial planning and how to find employment.

“It’s a matter of convincing them, ‘Hey, we have something we want to help you with, are you willing to buy into the system?’” Hale said. “If they buy into the system, great. If they choose not to, then you look at these kids who basically decide which [life]track they want to pursue afterward.”

Looking forward

During the ongoing 2019 legislative session, state and local organizations are advocating for ways the Texas Legislature can continue to improve the state’s child welfare system.

During a legislative advocacy meeting Oct. 23, Austin-based Texas Court Appointed Special Advocates for Children discussed its priorities for the ongoing legislative session, including requesting $2.25 million in annual funding under the Texas Health and Human Services Commission and $643,600 for the 2020-21 fiscal biennium to fund family finding and family engagement under the DFPS.

The DFPS also filed for a budget increase in August of $17.7 million in state funds, a 1.3 percent increase compared to projected 2018-19 expenditures, according to the department’s legislative appropriations request.

Several state representatives have taken measures to improve the guidelines for CPS caseworkers and the system itself this session. HB 72, filed by Rep. James White, R-Hillister, would allow for the continuation of Medicaid benefits provided to children with chronic health conditions adopted from DFPS. Meanwhile, HB 45—filed by Rep. Ina Minjarez, D-San Antonio—would create a mentor program for foster youth to develop better life skills and cultivate a one-on-one relationship with an adult mentor.

Testimony on HB 72 was heard  on Feb. 26 and on HB 45 Feb. 19. Both are pending and slated to go to House committees next, as of press time.

Correction: The original version of this article incorrectly stated that CASA Child Advocates of Montgomery County was a local partner of the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services that provides foster care placement.

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Kelly Schafler
Kelly Schafler is the editor for the Lake Houston, Humble and Kingwood edition of Community Impact Newspaper, covering public education, city government, development, businesses, local events and all things community-related. Before she became editor, she was the reporter for the Conroe and Montgomery edition for a year and a half.
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