Source: Austin-American Statesman
The number of Texas foster care children who slept in state offices, hotels and other temporary housing spiked last year, as the child welfare system continues to grapple with recruiting and retaining specialized foster homes.
Last year, the monthly count of foster care children who did not have a home for at least two nights totaled 678, a 49% increase from 2018, according to data from Child Protective Services. Many of them were teens, and most slept in state offices.
The number of foster children without placements has increased every year but two since 2011. The problem became particularly acute last year amid the loss of 197 foster beds across the state, lengthier discharges from residential treatment centers and an uptick over the summer in foster youth who rejected the placements assigned to them.
Fewer children have been placed in temporary housing in Central Texas compared with other areas since 2018, state officials said.
“We’re talking about teenage kids with significant behavioral issues, significant trauma histories or significant mental health needs,” said Kristene Blackstone, associate commissioner for Texas Child Protective Services. “It’s not like we can just call a provider and say, ‘Hey, can you take her today?’ These are the kinds of kids that have to staff clinical teams at the placements in order to determine if it’s a good match.”
Agency officials and state leaders have recognized the issue as a problem, but they can’t seem to fix it. Having children sleep in offices creates an unstable environment for already traumatized foster youth while placing additional strain on caseworkers who must provide 24-hour supervision of the children while they stay in offices. In past years, such cases have lead to dangerous outcomes, including foster children stealing a car, threatening to hurt themselves and harming others, including CPS workers.
State officials said they’re not aware of such serious incidents occurring in 2019.
State lawmakers attempted to boost the number of foster care placements in 2017 by giving approval to paying family members who serve as foster parents and to payment increases for other foster providers. Last year, lawmakers authorized $12 million for modest payment increases to other foster providers — between 2% and 6% raises.
The state payments to foster care providers, including foster parents, can range from $27 per day per child to $401 per day per child, depending on the child’s needs and whether the placement is through a child placing agency, in a residential operation or with an individual foster family.
There were as many as 1,900 foster beds statewide in 2018 that were not used on any given day because officials do not adequately track availability. CPS plans to launch soon a portal with real-time information on available caregivers. The agency also has stepped up efforts to include foster youth in the decision-making process about their placements and train caregivers on serving high-needs children.
But foster care advocates say there needs to be more earnest efforts to address the problem by paying foster providers as much as a full-time salary and implementing system changes to better recruit and retain providers who can support foster youth with complex needs.
“It’s going to take a really strong look, and then it’s going to take backing by the Legislature to say, ‘This is not a fixed issue.’ We need to continue to fund it and support it,” said Will Francis, executive director of the Texas chapter of the National Association of Social Workers.
Matt Avalos, a former foster parent in Austin, said some of the challenges of being a foster parent include giving up privacy; coordinating conversations with caseworkers and attorneys and court-appointed special advocates; caring for a revolving door of children with differing needs; and going through heartbreak after connecting with a child who eventually leaves.
Avalos, who started fostering in hopes of adopting, said the payment he received for fostering was about $20 a day per child, which didn’t even cover 10% of the cost of caring for a child.
“It takes a special type of person (to foster),” said Avalos, who adopted three children from the system. “The reimbursement rate is nothing based on what you put in. The reimbursement is just a pittance … so I think that’s a deterrent for some people.”
Each year, at least one residential treatment center stops contracting with the state largely due to the financial burden, according to state officials and advocates. The centers typically serve foster children with high needs.
Ted Keyser with Central Austin’s Helping Hand Home, which runs a residential treatment center for foster children with severe trauma and provides adoption and foster care services, said he needs to keep wages competitive to retain employees. Workers often leave for higher paying jobs in retail, and the $12,000 raise that state leaders authorized for CPS caseworkers has contributed to retention problems for providers that might pay their employees less, according to Texas Alliance of Child and Family Services.
Keyser says he passes about 50% of what he receives from the state to foster families and spends the rest on overhead.
“We have to pay our case managers, therapists, our recruiters, our trainers because foster families that are having a problem at 11 o’clock at night or 2 in the morning — they don’t call CPS; they call us, as they should,” Keyser said. “So the cost is tremendous to recruit and train and keep a healthy, well-supported number of foster homes.”
CPS officials expect a shortage of foster beds next year as well. The agency would require an additional 264 specialized foster beds statewide to meet daily estimated needs, and 721 more beds for foster children with lesser needs, officials said.
Over the last few years, the state has entered into nearly two dozen no-cost agreements with organizations from across the state to provide temporary shelter for children who don’t have immediate placements.
Foster Village in Dripping Springs, one such temporary facility that also serves as a resource center for foster families, received six requests for temporary placements in 2019, and the stays ranged from 24 hours to five days.
Although places like Foster Village offer a home-like environment for foster children without placements, more children stayed in state offices where a supervising CPS employee had easier access to resources and support.
Other CPS efforts include creating a portal that not only features the real-time number of available placements but also automatically matches foster children with those homes based on needs.
For the last year and a half, the agency also has tried to increase certain types of foster homes where no more than two children reside and where at least one parent stays at home full time. These types of foster parents receive specific training to address challenging behavior and receive more support.
“The idea there really is to target kids (when they’re young) who may be at risk for becoming these kind of high-needs kids who are bounding around from placement to placement,” said Blackstone, the CPS associate commissioner.
In the coming years, the foster care system will undergo drastic changes as the state hands over administration of most foster care services to local nonprofits or local governmental agencies. Those outside entities must demonstrate there are enough foster homes in their area.
But until the changes are complete, Francis said CPS shouldn’t rush to find placements simply to avoid putting children in temporary housing. He said the data often mask information about improper placements.
“Do we just have kids in a bed and that is great? Or do we have kids in safe placements that are really the best support for them?” Francis said.