Bill seeks to reform, privatize child welfare

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Senator Schwertner leads a hearing of Senate Bill 11 Thursday afternoon at the Texas State Capitol.

Photo Credit: Joshua Guerra | Daily Texan Staff

At any given time, 30,000 to 50,000 children are in the Texas foster care system. The Senate Committee on Health and Human Services held their first hearing of Senate Bill 11,  which aims to privatize and reform aspects of the child welfare system, Thursday.

Improving Texas’ Child Protective Services agency has been named as a top legislative priority for this session by Gov. Greg Abbott and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick. The proposed House and Senate budgets also allocate an additional $268 million and $260 million to CPS respectively.

“Protecting Texas children is one of my top priorities,” Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick said in a December statement. “Senate Bill 11 will strengthen the state’s ability to investigate child abuse and neglect and improve foster care accountability and capacity. I commend Chairman Schwertner for putting the safety of Texas children first.”

SB 11 expands Foster Care Redesign, a program that began in 2011 to promote a community-based approach to foster care, by contracting the state with private entities in what are known as Single Source Continuum Contracts. 

“It is the Legislature’s ultimate responsibility to get this right,” said Sen. Charles Schwertner, R-Georgetown, and an author of SB 11. “...We are going to get this done, we are going to get this right this session.”

ACH Child and Family Services was the first non-profit agency to contract in such a way with the state. 

During his testimony, ACH CEO Wayne Carson supported SB 11 and said turning case management over to SSCCs will provide better care for children. 

Sen. Charles Perry, R-Lubbock, said Carson’s agency is a guinea pig for what the bill would do. 

“Communities want to take care of their children we just need to approach them the right way and make sure the funding is there,” Perry said.  

Scott McCown, UT Law professor and director of the Children’s Rights Clinic, opposed aspects of privatization under SB 11. 

McCown said he recognizes the good done by Carson’s organization, but said it could all be accomplished without the state turning over case management.  

Defending SSCCs, Schwertner said the state is still responsible for representing the children and is not “abdicating or outsourcing its responsibility.” 

“Some metropolitan areas would do great freed from the shackles of how the state does this,” Schwertner said.  

McCown also said privatizing case management would put caseworkers out of jobs and halt any improvements within the system. 

Schwertner said current caseworkers would be given preferential hiring by the SSCCs or have the opportunity for upward mobility within the agency.

Henry Whitman, commissioner of the Department of Family and Protective Services, said caseworkers have the hardest job in the world.    

“I was shocked on what these people have to do on a daily basis,” Whitman said. “What I found was we probably place too much emphasis on getting to the next person and we lose the fact that caseworkers really want to spend time with these families.” 

No specific determinations have been made as to how SB 11 would affect state spending.  

The committee left SB 11 pending and said they would work through the process with the House to advance the bill appropriately.