AUSTIN, Texas (TRIBUNE) -- For 30 years, Sheila Hazley worked to ensure that abused and neglected children were settling into foster homes and getting the care they needed. Now, the retired caseworker and manager for the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services is side-eyeing a legislative proposal to have nonprofit organizations do the same work she and her team did.
Under House Bill 6 — part of a sweeping plan to revamp Texas' child welfare system — the state would slowly create a "community-based care" model, which would allow contracted organizations to monitor children in foster care and adoptive homes and those who have been placed by the state into a relative's home. That would include making sure children are settling into their new homes and their health needs are being met.
Some of that work is already done by private organizations. Former and current state caseworkers and advocates for children say more organizations doing case management could be problematic for both children and state employees. They worry about knowledgable state workers losing their jobs, contractors having trouble placing children with behavioral and mental health issues and not enough qualified nonprofits or local governments stepping up to help.
"It is a good philosophy, and if we could do it, it would be great for families and children, but the services aren't available," Hazley said. "So when our representatives are talking about it, they're talking about it in an ideal world ... but unfortunately, we don't live in an ideal world."
Since October, Gov. Greg Abbott, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and House Speaker Joe Straus have hounded legislators to do right by Texas children with more funding for the Department of Family and Protective Services, increasing wages for caseworkers and exploring how to entice communities to serve more vulnerable kids.
Rep. James Frank, R-Wichita Falls, the author of HB 6, and vice chairman of the House Human Services Committee, said the goal of his legislation is to get child welfare more localized. He said community-based care would make regional hubs for local groups and leaders to help the Department of Family and Protective Services quickly identify problems and find homes for children.
“Right now we have problems in the state but we don’t even know where those problems are,” Frank said. “You have some places that are actually working quite well but we don’t know where they are. If we move to more of a community-based model we can tell you exactly what’s going on because we have all of the data and if there’s a problem we can address it.”
Frank said he was sorry caseworkers fear losing their jobs but that the state needs to try something different. He said the model would allow caseworkers to work with organizations that can quickly respond to children’s needs.
Sen. Charles Schwertner, R-Georgetown, chairman of the Senate Health and Human Services Committee and author of Senate Bill 11, which would also create a community-based care model, did not respond to a request for comment for this story. SB 11 passed in the Senate on March 1.
Asked about how the agency is explaining this potential change to caseworkers, Patrick Crimmins, spokesman for the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services, said in an email statement the agency is watching the pending legislation.
“Like all new legislation there will be a legislative implementation plan created, and the complexity and brevity of that will depend on exactly what becomes law,” Crimmins said. “That's really about all we can say right now.”
Department caseworkers say an internal memo from October has made sharing their concerns difficult.
John Adamo, associate general counsel for employment matters for the agency, wrote in the Oct. 28 memo obtained by The Texas Tribune that employees have to go through the communications office to share information.
“DFPS employees may express their personal opinions to legislative offices but only on personal time and without the use of state property,” Adamo said. “DFPS employees must remain neutral and provide only information, not personal opinions, in discussions with state offices during regular business hours and representing DFPS.”
He said employees who break the rule “may be subject to disciplinary action up to and including dismissal.”
One state caseworker who wished to remain anonymous because of the department rule said in an email to the Tribune that agency officials and legislators are not listening to caseworkers and others who are familiar with foster care redesign, an earlier version of the community-based care model.
“Everyone involved in the protection of our children should have a voice, not just an entity that possesses financial interest," the caseworker said. "Over the past two years, major concerns have been noted and outright ignored. We have been told to keep quiet, but the safety of our children in the child welfare system is in danger. Shouldn't third-party research be conducted prior to implementing something that can have such catastrophic effects?"
Kate Murphy, senior policy associate for child protection for Texans Care for Children, said legislators may still fancy community-based care because of the success in Fort Worth under the state’s foster care redesign program. There, ACH Child and Family Services, a nonprofit focused on child welfare, has increased foster home availability, trained more parents on child behavioral health issues and uses better data to determine if services help.
But Murphy said community-based care’s success will depend on the organizations involved and if the Legislature provides enough money to help.
“Even if they are nonprofit, if they’re not getting the funding to get the job right they won’t do it,” Murphy said. “If we’re not giving them money to handle caseloads the right way, to handle caseloads the state has been expected to for a very long time, they might not be willing to do that.”
Rep. Richard Peña Raymond, D-Laredo, chairman of the House Human Services Committee, said it’s important to remember every community's needs are unique.
"I'm not foolish enough to think that it would absolutely work everywhere,” Raymond said. “I'm not even sure it would work in one place, but I think we have to be open to trying things."
One problem caseworkers point out is not all regions of the state have enough services for children and families. Under state law, kids have to get to doctor and counseling screenings in their first few weeks at a new home. Those services are typically paid for by STAR Health, which provides health care for foster children in Texas, or Medicaid, the joint federal-state health insurance program for the poor and disabled; however, a provider is not always available in a family’s area.
Hazley said community-based care becomes moot if organizations cannot connect children with services in their area.
“I really don’t think it’s a good thing at all in terms of case management,” Hazley said. “When you see the amount of work that has to be done, I don’t think anyone in the private sector is going to want to do it. It’s a lot of work.”