It's common knowledge that the child welfare system in Texas is broken. Most advocates and professionals in foster care would probably agree that the years of severe underfunding have been the largest contributors to the flawed system.
There's nothing new on that front. Texas Department for Family and Protective Services faces a $40 million budget shortfall, along with an overwhelming shortage of quality foster homes across the state and notoriously high caseloads for staff, which means less time to ensure the safety of the kids caseworkers are charged to protect, agency leaders told state lawmakers at a hearing in April.
But over the past two years, an experiment in a new way of managing the bloated system has been unfolding in North Texas. In what has been dubbed Foster Care Redesign, Tarrant County-based nonprofit ACH Child and Family Services has partnered with DFPS to implement reforms in managing foster children in seven counties (Tarrant, Palo Pinto, Parker, Johnson, Hood, Somervell and Erath).
After a bidding process, ACH was designated as the region’s "single source continuum contractor" in 2013, charged with the task of making “measurable improvements” to foster care statistics in its seven counties. In 2014, ACH launched a new division by the name of Our Community, Our Kids to oversee the redesign project.
It's been a little over a year since the division took over the legacy system in full, and so far, they’ve seen some success. The practice of children sleeping in offices or hotels has ended in the region; they’ve increased the number of foster homes throughout — most significantly in their most rural area, Palo Pinto County, which had 81 foster children with only three licensed foster homes (now there are 20 foster homes); and more children are remaining within 50 miles of their home communities than ever before, according to their progress report.
Under redesign, one “lead agency” — in this case, ACH — contracts with the state and absorbs some of the state’s responsibilities. The lead agency has several “benchmarks” they have to meet or exceed the state’s performance on, such as keeping children with their siblings, ensuring they're safe while in the state's care and minimizing the number of foster homes children are placed in within a certain period of time (ACH's benchmark goal is no more than two placements within 24 months for any child).
That’s a big shift from the way DFPS has traditionally done things.
As the system operates throughout most of Texas, children in foster care are placed in a foster home or facility by one of the hundreds of child placement agencies contracted with DFPS. These agency's receive all of their kids based on the decision-makers in Austin.
“All of the strategy and planning and decisions were pretty much in Austin, and it’s just impossible to do that because what works in El Paso is probably very different from what works in Fort Worth and what works in Tyler,” said Wayne Carson, chief executive officer of ACH. “Then this opportunity that is foster care redesign came along and what I really believe in and love about the model of redesign is that it addresses some of those fundamental problems that Texas has with its foster care system — that Texas is too big and too diverse to try to manage the entire system of care out of Austin.”
A large part of this success has been due to the ability of a local provider like ACH to draw on its established network and engage the community.
"It’s taken the statewide system down to a seven-county one and because we have information about these kids and we know what their needs are and what services are available, we can connect the dots in ways that have never happened before,” Carson said. “We can see very clearly where we need more services and not just know that, but do something about it.”
An example of being able to take immediate action is the Palo Pinto County scenario. In 2014, 81 Palo Pinto kids were in foster care and only three foster homes were in the entire county. Because of their longstanding relationships with local placement agencies, the new division was able to identify the problem and directly attack it, Carson said. Now, there are 20 licensed foster homes in the county.
“We were able to target that as an initiative right out of the gate, and we can be very creative about what we do,” Carson said. “We started talking to people and looking for partners and trying to get people interested in it. The state has never been able to identify a problem before and target it specifically because you can’t really tell that from Austin and even if you could, with the way they're organized, there really wasn't much they could do about it.”
Contractors like ACH have much more flexibility than DFPS when it comes to contracting with local providers. They reached out to their network of 42 providers and received responses from about four agencies, who said they’d be interested in recruiting foster families in that area.
One of the agencies had been looking into the situation in Palo Pinto County already and said that while the interest to foster was there, the biggest problem was that the closest training center was in Fort Worth. So, the agency said they’d open an office in Mineral Wells. They did and were able to do so knowing their services would be used, with the power to choose where Palo Pinto kids go.
Previously, it would not have been guaranteed that the investment in a training center in Mineral Wells would have been worth it.
“That’s where the state is kind of disconnected,” Carson said. “They have one group that works to build capacity (increase foster homes), but they have a whole other group that makes placement decisions. We’ve heard stories of the state coming into a community and saying, ‘We need program X,’ and then the provider starts program X and doesn’t ever get kids sent to it.”
Foster Care Redesign is far from foolproof and the added flexibility could prove to be negative in some regions. For example, it doesn’t explicitly address reforms that many child welfare advocates say are essential, like more carefully vetting foster families or a standardized approach to improving their training. Those sorts of things will be left up to the local contractors to decide to invest in or not.
Carson believes in redesign's potential. Having worked in child welfare for the past 25 years both on the ground with children and families as a social worker and therapist and on the top-down level as an administrator, he's well aware of the deficiencies in the system. Yes, the redesign has real possibility, he says, but only with adequate funding.
So far, the funding situation has not been improved much on the state’s side, though some progress was made in the last legislative session. But ACH was committed to redesign and wanted to prove the model was a good one. So, for the first three years of redesign in the North Texas counties, ACH told DFPS they would supplement the state’s money with their own fundraising in order to show that the model works. It’s the Legislature’s responsibility to increase funding, or else the model probably won’t be effective in other areas of the state, Carson said.
That’s why redesign failed where it was first attempted in vast and primarily rural areas in North and West Texas. The lead agency withdrew its five-year contract voluntarily in 2014 after a yearlong stint.
The agency was Providence Service Corporation of Texas, a for-profit company that provides healthcare and social services throughout the state. Providence had received $8.3 million from the state for foster care services, according to DFPS, and the five-year contract was worth $150 million in total. Providence said it needed more funding to care for the children in the 60 counties it was responsible for.
DFPS says otherwise.
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“The approach that (Providence) took to the model in that area didn't come to fruition like they thought it would,” said Kaysie Reinhardt, CPS program director for the redesign. “I think one of the problems was they had never offered services there, so they weren't as familiar with the community as they should be to offer a community-based foster care model.”
Since the failure in rural North Texas, DFPS is taking bids for a new, smaller region to retry introducing the redesign. They also changed the vetting process for the contractors, pressing them to create a solid plan for how the redesign would work in their region.
But will the money ever be put where the state's mouth is? Maybe the redesign program is the answer to the foster care system's woes, but we'll only know if it is done the right way — and that means more investment, Carson said.
“This is really a teamwork approach to building better experiences for kids and so that’s why we called our project ‘Our Community, Our Kids’ because we really believe we have to stop thinking about these kids as foster kids, or CPS kids or state kids," he said. "We've gotta start understanding that these are Tarrant County’s kids and these are Johnson County’s kids and these are Palo Pinto County’s kids. It’s up to us as a community to come together and give them what they need to grow up to be successful adults. We can show that the model can work and that it’s better for kids, but if the state wants to do it in other places and they want to continue to use this model as their way to improve foster care, then it does need to be fully funded.”