The 85th Texas Legislature was one for the history books when it comes to child welfare. From the unprecedented investment of an additional $508 million in the child protection system to the authorization of expanded community-based care and numerous other key decisions in between, Texas took major strides toward achieving the rallying cry of “Let’s Get It Right” that was adopted by legislative members and advocates alike.
In 2015, Governor Abbott declared at his inauguration, “Our children transcend politics.” This year, the governor made the child protection system the first of his emergency items for consideration, and the Legislature – already having committed to giving this subject high-priority treatment – responded in many meaningful ways. Upbring was pleased to support 64 different bills from 40 different legislative authors, including several of the session’s highest priority bills.
Upbring is truly grateful to the many members who worked tirelessly to deliver significant investments and reforms across the state. We also thank our amazing advocacy partners, with whom we work to make the long-term prospects for every Texas child as bright as possible. May the welfare of Texas children be the highest priority of our elected leaders every session!
Ten Things The 85th Texas Legislature Got Right
10 –Extending Permanency Care Assistance
9 – Enhancing Tools to Combat Human Trafficking
8 – Upholding “Best Interests of the Child” Standard
7 – Streamlining Court Proceedings and Protocols
6 – Keeping Abuse and Neglect Investigations at DFPS
5 – Improving Preparation for Adult Living Programs
4 – Continuing Emergency Pay Package for CPS Workforce
3 – Supporting Kinship Caregivers
2 – Investing in Foster Care and Prevention
1 – Authorizing “Community-Based Care”
All the Rest from A to Z
A full dive into each topic, can be found below this infographic:
A Full Recap of The 85th Texas Legislature from A to Z
A – Abuse and Neglect Investigations
As a result of the 2015 sunset legislation, child care licensing and most other administrative functions of Led by Texas CASA, advocates recognized that consolidation created a problem because investigations of abuse and neglect are fundamentally different than investigations of facilities and homes. As a result, these advocates successfully sought to have abuse and neglect investigations remain at DFPS, while the regulatory function of inspecting facilities and homes moves to HHSC.
B – Budget Increases
State investment in the child protection system increased by $508 million. The increase in budget is directed primarily toward continuing the emergency pay package for CPS caseworkers and investigators that had been approved in late 2016, funding additional workforce positions, foster care rate increases, and new benefits for kinship caregivers within the state system. This was achieved in a very difficult budget environment under which the overall budget declined by more than 7 percent when adjusted for population and inflation. Only child protection and mental health received significant additional discretionary state investment.
C – Community-Based Care (CBC)
The signature child protection policy issue of the session was the Legislature’s authorized building on foster care redesign to create community-based care. Under the redesign, a single contractor assumes responsibility for a region of the state to provide for not only foster care but kinship care, and not only care management but case management, the latter element being the subject of some controversy. CBC represents a potential opportunity for Upbring as one of the state’s leading nonprofit organizations with a mission focused on child welfare. While there were many voices taking part in this conversation, we are especially grateful to the Texas Alliance for Child and Family Services and Texans Care for Children for their leadership roles in making the case and improving the bill.
D – DFPS
The 2015 sunset process left DFPS as a separate agency under HHSC and called for that determination to be reviewed and further considered. The 2017 Legislature moved to take DFPS out from under HHSC to be a stand-alone agency, although many important administrative support functions, such as procurement and contracting, will remain consolidated at HHSC and be performed pursuant to mandatory inter-agency agreements.
E – Education
Upbring recognizes education as one of the five key protective factors essential to provide every child the opportunity to lead a successful and fulfilling adult life. Yet we know from the data that the educational outcomes for youth in the system are considerably poorer than for other Texas children. We appreciate some small steps the Legislature took to promote greater coordination and continuity of educational experiences for youth in the system, to empower foster parents to make educational decisions, and to increase utilization of the present tuition benefits for higher education. We also encourage the exploration of alternative “school choice” approaches for under-represented population groups. While many acknowledge the unique challenges that under-represented youth face, progress has been limited due to the politics of the larger issues of education finance and school choice.
F – Foster Care
Many of the other enactments on which we are reporting relate to foster care, so we’ll take a moment to highlight a proposal we actively opposed. This proposed bill aimed to tier payments to foster families based on the number of children in care – reducing the payment amount for each additional child taken into care by 20 percent. We are grateful that this misguided proposal was wisely rejected because we know that great families come in all sizes, large and small, and these payments do not cover the full cost of caring for each child in any event.
G – Growing Capacity
Perhaps second only to reducing workforce turnover, growing system capacity to provide a comprehensive array of quality placement options remains a major challenge for DFPS and the system. Private child placing agencies like Upbring are the primary source of meaningful capacity building and quality supports for foster families, and while reimbursement rate increases were granted and appreciated, they are not enough to drive the level of capacity building that is truly needed. One barrier to capacity building that was left unaddressed is the badly outdated cost methodology used by the state to set rates –in the interim, Upbring is working to address this clear need. We also will continue to address the misguided assumption that the number of providers correlates to capacity – in fact, we believe capacity growth would be most likely to occur with a smaller number of high-quality providers operating at scale.
H – Health
Along with education and safety, health represents a critical protective factor for all age groups within the birth to age 21 continuum. The Legislature took several important steps to better assure the continuity of physical and mental health care services for children and youth in care, and to better assure prompt health examinations take place when a child enters the system. We acknowledge the leadership and thoughtful recommendations of the Texas Pediatric Society on these issues, and we expect to see more positive work accomplished thanks to their ongoing contributions.
I – Independent Living
When youth age out of the system at age 18 and are not prepared for adult life far too many are left in vulnerable positions. Many of these young adults end up unemployed, homeless, susceptible to trafficking, and/or in trouble in the criminal justice system. The issue of “ageing out” is one of the clearest areas for improvement. Supervised independent living – including Upbring’s award-winning BeREAL program – provides youth ages 18-21 the extended care experience of learning how to live as an independent adult and continues to benefit from state support, although we would like to see these endeavors expanded more broadly. We are grateful for the leadership of One Voice Texas in so many of the policy issues impacting older youth preparing and transitioning to adulthood.
J – Judicial Process
The power to remove a child from a parent temporarily or permanently is a state responsibility that requires careful judicial participation and oversight – a huge challenge in a state as vast and diverse as Texas. The Legislature made significant changes to streamline judicial proceedings and better assure thoughtful decision-making concerning removal, placement and permanency. Importantly, these changes were made without modifying the prevailing “best interests of the child” standard or altering the burden of proof for either removal or termination of parental rights. The efforts of the Texas Supreme Court Children’s Commission were instrumental in shaping this major bill.
K – Kinship Care
Kinship care is far and away the most prevalent form of support provided to children and youth who are unable to live with their biological parents for any period of time. Historically, most kinship arrangements are informal within families. Even within the formal child protection system, kinship arrangements have become more common, and many experts believe that better results occur. With advocacy led by TexProtects, the Legislature created a new payment benefit for kinship caregivers in the system. Other bills will require more robust placement reviews in court proceedings that may surface kinship care opportunities, and add kinship care into the overall scope of responsibility for community-based care contractors to better integrate all care within the system.
L – Life Skills
For older youth in the system, the opportunity to learn critical life skills that will be needed in adulthood is a vital protective factor to achieving favorable long-term outcomes. Yet our efforts to prepare older youth have fallen well short of what is needed. The Legislature took steps to remedy these shortcomings by requiring that preparation for adult living endeavors commence at age 14, and by better assuring that youth receive the key documents they need to start their adult lives, such as a driver’s license and birth certificate.
M – Mental Health Intensive Services
Mental health is a cornerstone of public health. At Upbring, we understand that helping those in our care to receive high-quality, trauma-informed services that contribute to healthy minds is a vital part of building the protective factor of overall health. The Legislature made an important change to an existing program to allow certain behavioral health providers to provide targeted case management and psychiatric rehabilitation services to children and youth through Medicaid. These services were provided by streamlining the participation requirements in a manner that makes it possible for organizations like Upbring to participate. This is a service opportunity Upbring will consider in the months ahead, and we appreciate the leadership of Meadows Mental Health Policy Institute in advancing this proposal.
N – Normalcy
The 2015 Legislature enacted laws to make normalcy a priority for children and youth in care. Normalcy is essential to providing the types of normal socialization and life experiences provided to nearly all other children as they grow up, especially for older youth. Normalcy also allows foster parents to truly be parents, and make age and developmentally appropriate decisions about activities without being micromanaged. Implementing normalcy is as much about culture change as it is about laws, and it is encouraging to see that the Legislature built normalcy into various aspects of its 2017 enactments as a fundamental operating principle for the benefit of children and youth in the system.
O – Other Issues of Interest
One high-profile bill that became the subject of considerable controversy added new protections for providers of child welfare services to act in accordance with their sincerely held religious beliefs when providing those services. Upbring and many other faith-based providers were not among those who sought these additional protections, believing that the more broadly applicable Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1999 afforded sufficient protection for our service work. However, a small number of other faith-based providers insisted additional protection was needed. It is likely that this legislation will be the subject of one or more legal challenges.
P – Prevention and Early Intervention
In a system where 94 percent of state resources are expended on addressing abuse and neglect after it is alleged and just 6 percent expended on prevention and early intervention, it is critical that prevention resources be focused on the areas of greatest need. Driven by advocacy leadership led by TexProtects, the Legislature took several steps to build out and implement strategies that use data to create public health strategies to better ensure effective prevention and early intervention services are targeted to those most in need.
Q – Quality Care
Upbring fully supports efforts to raise the bar on quality standards for providers, and we’ve been participating in the state’s efforts to pilot performance-based contracting in this field. Much of the action to enhance quality is taking place within the administrative process, but the Legislature did include a number of provisions to assure quality of care under the community-based care model. The Legislature also debated a bill that would have required all training to be trauma-informed, but that legislation was not enacted. Efforts to promote trauma-informed approaches to care will continue to advance, even in the absence of a legislative mandate, because the evidence demonstrates their value.
R – Readiness Reviews
During the six years that foster care redesign has been in place, important lessons were learned and considered when developing an innovative approach to community-based care. One of those lessons was the critical importance of assuring readiness, both on the part of the organization that would serve as the single contractor for a region, and for the communities to be served within those regions. As a result, robust readiness reviews will be required before community-based care is launched in any region and before the contractor undertakes case management in the region.
S – Safety
Safety is one of the five primary protective factors recognized by Upbring and the core responsibility of the state child protection system. Providing the maximum possible level of safety is obviously multi-faceted and quite complex. Texas continues to make progress in implementing effective prevention strategies to stop abuse and neglect before it occurs and to better protect those most at risk – such as potential victims of the scourge of human trafficking.
T – Texting While Driving
Two of the longest-serving (and most distinguished) members of the Legislature successfully completed a 10-year quest to enact a statewide ban on texting while driving. While the bill is of general interest, it is a special concern for older youth who have started driving and grown up with mobile devices as a constant part of their lives – a dangerous combination when the two are combined.
U – Under Age 18
Texas continues to evolve for the better in the way we protect the interests of children and youth. In 2015, Upbring applauded the decriminalization of truancy. This session saw the passage of legislation to end most school suspensions for grades K-3 and to protect young women under the age of 18 from marrying under most circumstances. We also supported the movement to “raise the age” for the juvenile justice system from 17 to 18, but that remains to be addressed in a future session.
V – Vocation
Another of our five protective factors, vocation may be the least understood. Often thought of as “getting a job,” vocation means finding one’s calling in life. While public policy is not a primary driver as it is with education, health and safety, the Legislature enhanced efforts to empower older youth to prepare for adulthood earlier and more fully, including by promoting normalcy that allows for the types of opportunities that expose youth to a wider range of life’s possibilities.
W – Workforce Compensation and Retention
Long recognized as a major impediment to system improvement, the Legislature took bold steps to stabilize the DFPS workforce even before the 2017 session began by approving an emergency pay package that took effect in December 2016. This package provided most caseworkers and investigators with $12,000 per year salary increases. Early indications are that this move, accompanied by authorization of additional positions and enhancement of support services for caseworkers, are helping DFPS make critical progress on workforce retention.
X – Exceptional Efforts by Members
We are truly grateful that a strong bipartisan coalition of senators and representatives joined in making sure child protection and welfare maintained high-priority status throughout the session, and that they were not sidetracked in the wake of other difficult challenges. We thank the following members for their leadership, vision and exceptional service:
- Lt. Governor Dan Patrick and the following members of the Texas Senate:
- Senator Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa
- Senator Lois Kolkhorst
- Senator Jane Nelson
- Senator Charles Perry
- Senator Charles Schwertner
- Senator Carlos Uresti
- Senator Kirk Watson
- Senator Royce West
- Senator Judith Zaffirini
- Speaker Joe Straus and the following members of the Texas House of Representatives:
- Representative Cindy Burkett
- Representative Sarah Davis
- Representative James Frank
- Representative Helen Giddings
- Representative Donna Howard
- Representative Stephanie Klick
- Representative Ina Minjarez
- Representative Four Price
- Representative Richard Pena Raymond
- Representative Senfronia Thompson
- Representative James White
- Representative Gene Wu
- Representative John Zerwas
Y – Youth Voice
Youth Voice is among the most powerful advocacy offered to young adults who have been in the system. Their powerful stories bear witness to the shortcomings of the system and how it can be improved. In the 85th Legislative Session, the authorization of a pilot program to recruit more young adult caregivers (to provide support to older youth in care) was adopted. It is widely recognized that the system chronically underperforms for older youth, and this innovative approach will hopefully bring about transformative change for the benefit of this segment of the population in care.
Z – Zealous Advocacy Partners
Upbring has the privilege of working alongside an amazing group of advocacy partners who all believe in driving policies and investments that will improve the long-term life prospects for every Texas child. We express our heartfelt gratitude for the exceptional efforts of the following organizations with whom we are proud to be associated and whose excellent work resulted in significant progress during this historic session:
- Texans Care for Children
- Texas CASA
- One Voice Texas
- National Association of Social Workers – Texas Chapter
- Texas Pediatric Society
- United Ways of Texas
- Texas Alliance for Child and Family Services
- Texas Network of Youth Services
- Texas IMPACT
- Texas Supreme Court Permanent Commission for Children, Youth and Families