After fostering 12 children and adopting four from 2008-15, Lisa Johnson continues to help meet the needs of families in similar situations as executive director of Entrusted Houston in Cy-Fair.
Johnson said while Texas legislators have made positive changes to the child welfare system in recent years, demand for services and for foster families like hers still exists locally.
As of March 7, Harris County had 2,155 children in the foster care system—88.4 percent of which had been placed in temporary homes, according to state data.
“The child population in Harris County is large and continues to grow,” said Tiffani Butler, media specialist for Region 6 of the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services. “We continue to need families to foster young children and our more challenging teens.”
State lawmakers have approved additional funding and measures to address a series of critical problems in the system since a federal judge declared the Texas child protection and foster care system broken in December 2015. At the time, caseworkers were leaving their jobs at excessive rates, and caseloads were so high it made it difficult for caseworkers to check on some vulnerable children in a timely manner, officials said.
Children’s advocacy groups in Harris County have acknowledged improvements in recent years. Salaries in 2018 were one-third higher, turnover rates are down, and caseworker responses to reports of abuse or neglect are timelier than their recent lows in 2016, according to state data.
“I am grateful for the [legislative] support offered to the agency over the past two years and believe the gains made as a result of the fiscal year 2017 through 2019 funding will be maintained with continued appropriations,” DFPS Commissioner H.L. Whitman said in a statement.
DFPS officials requested additional funding for the 86th legislative session to expand prevention services and maintain caseloads, client services and employee retention rates. State legislators have also filed several bills regarding improvements to the DFPS in 2019.
Improving the system
In 2016, CPS investigators in Harris County were working an average of 20.3 cases per day. The same year, their turnover rate reached 21.6%.
In response to this crisis, the Legislative Budget Board approved $150 million in emergency funding in December 2016 for the DFPS to hire 829 additional caseworkers statewide and to give a $12,000 annual salary increase to existing caseworkers. The following year, the 85th Texas Legislature took matters one step further.
Gov. Greg Abbott signed Senate Bill 11 into law in 2017, creating a Child Protective Services Legislative Oversight Committee and outlining several additional DFPS requirements. These included the shift to a community-based care model, which is intended to give more flexibility in meeting the unique needs of children and families, according to the DFPS.
Following the 2017 changes, staff turnover rates improved, and CPS investigators saw a decreased workload, averaging 13.8 cases per day by 2018, according to state data.
Will Henry serves as chief program officer at Boys and Girls Country, a Christian home in Hockley that takes in children from families who are in crisis. About 10 of the 70 children who currently live on campus are from CPS placements. Henry said child welfare officials have made stability and keeping children close to home more of a priority in recent years.
“If a child’s from Houston, they don’t just look at the placement and say, ‘Well there’s an open bed in Lubbock, so we’ll send them 10 hours away,’” he said. “I’ve seen through the years that kids in the foster care system bounce around from placement to placement—especially if they’re a difficult child. I’ve had kids tell me they’ve moved 20 times, and that really becomes a way of life.”
Former state Rep. Kevin Roberts, R-Spring, authored House Bill 871, which became law Sept. 1, 2017. The legislation was designed to prevent more children from entering the foster care system by making it easier for state agencies to work with faith-based organizations and nonprofits like Entrusted Houston.
According to state data, DFPS had 1,559 partnerships with faith-based organizations in December 2018—up 158% from just 605 in December 2016.
“The increase has definitely been noticeable,” Butler said. “For example, Entrusted Houston … assists us with the families we work with in the services and investigations phases, and they help us with children in care as well. They have been a blessing to the community.”
Entrusted Houston hosts free training sessions and support group meetings for foster parents at Bayou City Fellowship on Telge Road. It also facilitates needs in investigations and kinship family situations and provides foster families with supplies stored in a 3,000-square-foot warehouse space called Moses Closet.
From contributing financially to providing child care during foster parent trainings, Johnson said there are multiple ways to support local nonprofits.
“One of the biggest needs is respite care workers—people that get approved and step in to help give the parents a few days off or if there’s surgery,” she said. “There are so many limitations on who can step in and not a lot of [qualified people]. Babysitters need to be background checked and fingerprinted, so it’s hard for the parents to even go out to dinner.”
Treating trauma, abuse
While improvements have been made within Texas’ child welfare system and additional legislation has been proposed this session, more cases of child abuse and neglect are being reported annually, meaning more children are being placed in foster care.
According to state data, 54,903 cases of child abuse were reported in Harris County in 2017, which is up 28.6% from the 42,688 cases reported in 2013.
Martha Vieco-Garcia, communications and outreach coordinator at the Houston-based The Children’s Assessment Center, said the center has handled around 5,000 annual sexual abuse cases in recent years, but the number of cases involving human trafficking has increased recently.
State Rep. Gina Calanni, D-Katy, filed HB 3375 this session, which would ensure foster children across the state have routine human trafficking evaluations alongside their annual medical exams. As of press time, the bill had been referred to the Texas Health & Human Services Commission.
If a health care provider identified signs of sexual abuse or human trafficking, it would refer victims to specialists for medical and psychological treatment, according to the bill.
“Research has shown that children within our foster care system are more susceptible to becoming victims of human trafficking,” Calanni said in a March 6 press release. “By identifying victim survivors, we can provide access to a real path of rehabilitation sooner rather than years later in life.”
Local children at Boys and Girls Country who have faced emotional, sexual or physical abuse have access to trauma-based cognitive behavioral therapy through licensed counseling professionals, Henry said.
“You have to establish a relationship with a child in order to heal the hurt that they’re suffering from,” he said. “Primarily the change agent is getting the child to … find out not every adult is going to cause you pain, so you can learn to just be a kid again and have a normal childhood despite what may have happened.”
State and local organizations are advocating for ways the Texas Legislature can continue to improve the state’s child welfare system.
Other legislation filed this session includes measures to create a mentor program for Texas foster care children and establishing a minimum education requirement for CPS caseworkers.
The DFPS filed for a budget increase in August of $17.7 million in state funds for the 86th legislative session, a 1.3% increase compared to projected 2018-19 expenditures, according to the department’s legislative appropriations request. As of press time, the request had not yet passed through the House or Senate.
“The agency is finding innovative ways to meet the increasing demand of incoming reports, to prevent children and families from ever entering our system, to provide services to our adult population and to expand a community-based system that will improve outcomes for children,” Whitman said.
As the demand for services increases, the demand for more foster parents increases as well. Johnson said while the experience is a “roller coaster,” she believes fostering and adopting is worth it.
“It’s incredibly wonderful and incredibly difficult,” she said. “Everybody always talks about what a blessing you are to them and, ‘Oh, how wonderful it is what you’re doing for them.’ It’s quite the opposite. I think any decent foster parent would tell you that we receive so much more than we are able to give through the process.”
Additional reporting by Zac Ezzone and Hannah Zedaker