Sherry Sylvester

Opinion: Texas fails victims of sex trafficking. Overhaul child welfare services now.

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By Sherry SylvesterAndrew C. Brown, J.D.|April 27, 2022This commentary was originally published in the Houston Chronicle.

Texans were horrified to learn of the Department of Family and Protective Services’ mishandling of allegations that children in its care were sexually exploited at a shelter intended to protect victims of sex trafficking. In the weeks since the story made it clear that DFPS has broken its promise to children to take them to a place that is safer than the place where they were in, the Texas House and Senate convened emergency hearings to get to the bottom of what happened, as did the judge overseeing the decade-old federal lawsuit against the state’s foster care system.

This outrage is just the latest in a long line of heartbreakingavoidable incidents that are rooted in organizational dysfunction and a toxic internal culture. Private providers, foster parents and even its own employees have described the department’s approach to internal management and external oversight as “punitive,” “crisis-driven,” fear-based, and lacking a unifying vision and clear guiding principles.

This toxicity permeates the organization, rendering it utterly incapable of protecting the children in its care. And it’s resistant to change. Efforts at reforming the department have either been ignored, delayed or poorly implemented.

The problems plaguing DFPS have been well-known for at least a decade. In 2011, Texas was sued in federal court on behalf of children in its permanent care. The lawsuit alleged that conditions in the state-run foster care system were so bad that they violated the constitutional rights of the children. In 2015, U.S. District Court Judge Janis Graham Jack ruled in favor of the plaintiffs, finding that children in the custody of the department routinely leave more damaged than when they entered. As part of her ruling, Jack required the state to comply with a series of remedial orders intended to fix the problems with the system.

Following Judge Jack’s ruling, the Texas Legislature got to work enacting reforms to give the department the tools needed to turn things around. In 2017, the Texas Senate passed Senate Bill 11, which laid out a blueprint for reform, including standards that should have prevented anything like this from ever happening. For example, the legislation sought to increase accountability for DFPS and providers on delivering optimal outcomes for children, establish a quality assurance framework, strengthen standards for child protective services investigations into allegations of abuse and neglect, and improve monitoring of DFPS contractors.

SB 11 represented a fundamental transformation of the Texas child welfare system designed to make it safer and more responsive to the unique needs of children, while increasing the role of local communities in caring for their most vulnerable.

Yet, nearly five years after the bill was signed into law, it has yet to be fully implemented.

In response to DFPS all but completely ignoring the Legislature, Sen. Lois Kolkhorst passed Senate Bill 1896 to address continuing safety problems within the foster care system and spur the full implementation of past reforms. Again, the Legislature has been ignored.

Gov. Abbott made foster care an emergency item during the 85th Legislature, including it on the call for multiple special sessions, convening workgroups and directly ordering the commissioners of both DFPS and the Health and Human Services Commission to comply with the remedial orders. Yet DFPS remains entrenched in the same cycles of failure.

More funding is routinely touted as the solution to the problems plaguing the Texas foster care system but the data show substantially increasing funding for DFPS has not been a path to positive outcomes for foster children.

The Legislature has increased the department’s budget by more than $800 million since 2015 and has authorized hundreds of millions of dollars in additional emergency appropriations during that same period. The problems have only gotten worse.

A major focus of this infusion of cash has been increasing caseworker salaries to reduce turnover and maintain manageable caseloads. In late 2016, the Legislature approved an emergency request by DFPS for $150 million to immediately raise caseworker annual salaries by $12,000 and hire an additional 829 employees. After the investment, staff turnover dramatically decreased in 2017 and caseloads began coming down. However, these gains proved short-lived. Staff turnover began increasing again in 2018 and spiked to its highest rate in a decade by 2021. While it’s likely the pandemic played some role in that spike, it doesn’t explain why in 2020, at the height of the pandemic, the percentage of staff turnover was about the same as the turnover percentage in 2019. Clearly, infusing more money into a broken system isn’t the answer.

There is one promising solution that has been recommended for years but hasn’t been attempted yet. It calls for a complete reorganization of DFPS, with a focus on transforming the agency’s management and culture. This recommendation has been repeated by numerous outside experts hired by the state to provide guidance on ending the crisis.

In 2014, for example, the Stephen Group noted that “the missing key ingredient” was a “unifying vision that clearly defines success and demonstrates how to get there.” A 2016 progress report on the implementation of the Stephen Group’s recommendations found that while some progress was being made, the department was struggling to embed changes into practice and had yet to develop a positive culture of transformation and excellence. Earlier this year, an expert panel report published in connection with the ongoing federal lawsuit stated the need for leadership to “immediately adopt and apply a set of shared values and principles” and work to rebuild relationships between the department and service providers.

The latest scandal sparked immediate action from legislative leaders. Within 24 hours of the story breaking, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick established the Senate Special Committee on Child Protective Services. The special committee is tasked with investigating the department’s continual failures and putting all options on the table to transform the agency.

That’s a good start. If it follows through with this directive, the special committee has the opportunity to bring long-overdue change to DFPS and enable Texas to once again keep its promise to the state’s most vulnerable children.