DALLAS (AP) - Texas lawmakers agree on the need to improve the state's beleaguered child welfare system, but how to do it and to pay for it during a tight budget year are still very much up in the air.
With troubles mounting at the state agency that investigates reports of child abuse and, if needed, places abused children in foster care, lawmakers have already been filing bills that they think will help fix the system ahead of the legislative session that starts Tuesday.
"There's no bigger fight than the need to protect the lives of children. If others don't see that, then it's a travesty," said state Rep. Armando Walle, a Houston Democrat who has proposed legislation that would address worker caseloads, which are often cited as a reason for high turnover.
Also looming is a federal judge's order requiring reforms at the Department of Family and Protective Services aimed at improving conditions for those in long-term foster care. In her December 2015 opinion, U.S. District Judge Janis Graham Jack wrote that these children "almost uniformly leave state custody more damaged than when they entered" and she described cases in which kids continued to suffer abuse as they ping-ponged through the system.
Despite Republican Gov. Greg Abbott's calls after taking office in 2015 for improvements at DFPS, last year brought more bad news for the agency, which includes Child Protective Services. It emerged that some children taken from their families had to sleep in state offices, motels or emergency shelters because of a lack of other options, children believed to be at risk weren't being promptly seen, if at all, and more children were dying of abuse and neglect.
While the child welfare agency was granted about $140 million in emergency funding last month to hire 800 new CPS workers and give pay raises to thousands of others, child welfare advocates say more changes are needed.
Will Francis, the governmental relations director for the Texas chapter of the National Association of Social Workers, said that while that money will help recruit workers, he doesn't want anyone to think it's the solution to the caseworker turnover problem. He said that in order to retain workers, their caseloads must be reduced to manageable levels. He also said there needs to be better training, including for how caseworkers can have more meaningful visits with children.
Walle, who pushed failed legislation in past sessions that would have improved worker caseloads and pay, said his bill this session addressing caseloads would cost an estimated $200 million to $300 million.
"Some folks thought I was crazy for continuing to fight this thing," said Walle, who added that he'd like to see a permanent salary increase for caseworkers, not just the temporary one approved in December.
Madeline McClure, founder and executive director of the Dallas-based advocacy group TexProtects: Texas Association for the Protection of Children, said there finally seems to be enough support for "a wholehearted comprehensive look at what it takes to recruit and maintain a quality workforce." Doing that will improve outcomes for children and their families, she said.
McClure said that the funding approved last month will help, but that she's pushing for an additional salary increase for supervisors. "They're responsible for all of the cases underneath them," she said.
State Sen. Carlos Uresti, a San Antonio Democrat who co-sponsored a bill with two Republicans that would make an array of changes to the foster care system, said he believes the state has "stepped up" in a "bipartisan manner" for child welfare. Though there isn't an official cost estimate for the bill yet, he said he's sure it will be expensive.
Uresti said that although there seems to be momentum for reforms, it's also important to put more money toward prevention. He said it would help vulnerable children and would end up saving money that otherwise would have gone toward sending them to counseling, juvenile detention or prison.
"Until we do more in preventing child abuse and neglect, we're never going to fix the problem. You're always going to have kids coming in and out of foster care," Uresti said.