OP-ED: Texas' foster care system needs reconstruction
Versions of this op-ed ran in newspapers around Texas in February 2016, including the Dallas Morning News, Houston Chronicle, Odessa American, Austin American-Statesman, Fort Worth Star-Telegram, Rockwall News, San Antonio Express-News, and El Paso Times.
The recent federal court decision against Texas’ foster care system reads like the screenplay for a horror movie. I was sickened and depressed after I read it, because I knew this was not fiction. Almost 100 of the decision’s 260 pages recount the stories of the plaintiffs, detailing real-life atrocities they suffered throughout their wrecked childhoods.
What makes their tales so nauseatingly, mind-numbingly appalling, is not just the abuse or neglect that landed these children in foster care to begin with, but what happened to them once they were in the “protective” custody of the state. As Judge Jack wrote in her decision, “foster children often age out of care more damaged than when they entered.” These children were often moved multiple times, ending up in a group foster home or institution where rape, over-medication and staff threats of punishments for reporting abuse are the norm.
More than a decade ago, I founded the nonprofit TexProtects on the premise that prevention is the best solution to eradicating child abuse. The court’s decision reinforced this belief and now the state must respond by doubling its prevention efforts. We must expand effective primary prevention programs like HOPES (Healthy Outcomes through Prevention and Early Support), family support home visiting programs, education such as the Positive Parenting Program, traumatic head injury prevention programs and other efforts shown to keep children out of the foster care system, save lives and state resources.
In cases where we cannot prevent abuse, children in immediate danger must be removed from their families. But most all removals should be temporary. Legislators and child advocates should aim to phase-out “Permanent Managing Conservatorship” (state long-term custody). The goal should be to scale down the need for damaging and costly residential treatment centers, group foster homes and other institutional care. “Permanent” and “State Conservatorship” should never be used in the same phrase. The state is not a parent.
The goal should be preserving the family with no removal or safely reunifying the child with family. We can phase out long-term state custody by redirecting resources toward evidence-based early intervention programs. By working on education, modeling and practicing positive parenting behaviors, home-based family support services such as SafeCare show evidence of reducing recidivism in research trials by over 26% compared to the monthly caseworker “drive-by.”
Every child maltreatment investigation should be processed though a Children’s Advocacy Center where children receive the best treatments. Parents who have had their child removed need the most support of all: Simply handing them a list of programs to complete, that lack an evaluation for efficacy and expecting families to magically self-reform is ludicrous. They need a family support navigator to help them succeed.
With an intensive focus on reunification and family preservation, the resultant reduction in the need for long-term foster care will more than cover the costs of utilizing evidence-based models and best practices. Foster care cost Texas $402,938,794 in 2015 alone, more than $24,000 per child. The average stay in foster care is three years, costing taxpayers $72,000 per child. Compare that with evidence-based family support home visiting: Approximately $9,000 for two years per family.
The main contributing factor to SafeCare’s success is that the home visitor is well-trained, well-supported, her caseload is capped, and her compensation is fair and market-driven. That’s what all CPS caseworkers need to succeed as well.
Only after intensive efforts at family reunification and where parental rehabilitation is beyond hope must we terminate parental rights. Then we must focus on finding close relatives as the first option for substitute placement leading to adoption so the child can prosper in a permanent home, not permanent state “care.”
Only in the event that a safe relative’s home isn’t available should we place children in single-child or sibling-group foster-to-adopt homes. The state must strengthen existing faith-based efforts to recruit potential foster-to-adopt parents every Sunday, at every house of worship across Texas. And foster care subsidies should be cost-of-living adjusted, which will increase capacity in expensive metropolitan areas where need is highest. And every removed child needs a volunteer CASA (Court-Appointed Special Advocate) as their constant advocate to help them achieve safe permanency sooner.
Research shows a strong correlation between child maltreatment and juvenile delinquency, especially when abuse is not resolved through treatment. It’s clear to see that the average 1,200 Texas children who “age out” of foster care annually at age 18 are at the highest risk of cycling back to the state’s custody – in prison.
For youth who are too damaged and have behavioral problems, Texas must develop multi-dimensional treatment foster care, an evidence-based alternative to group or residential treatment demonstrating up to a 50% decrease in youth needing institutionalization – and a $4.85 return for every $1.00 invested.
I recognize that most foster caregivers are wonderful, selfless and caring souls, and progress is being made in changing the system. Commissioner John Specia is providing solid leadership at DFPS – a role he assumed after most of the incidents forming the backbone of this court case occurred. And our state legislature has made some positive investments to improve CPS over the years.
Specia’s leadership must be bolstered by lawmakers in the upcoming 2017 legislative session. We don’t need more tinkering-around-the-edges “reform”: We need reconstruction, redirecting resources to programs with proof of efficacy that save lives and taxpayer dollars. Our collective goal must be to rewrite the screenplay, eliminate the horror from abused children’s lives and invest in the front end to ultimately dispense with foster care and banish the deplorable suffering of Texas’ most precious resource: Our children.
Madeline McClure is the founding CEO of TexProtects, the Texas Association for the Protection of Children. www.texprotects.org