Foster care deaths prompt legislative changes

UntitledSan Antonio Express-News & Houston Chronicle

AUSTIN — An alarming number of deaths of children in foster care last year sparked legislative change this session, but watchdogs argue that those measures didn’t go far enough.

There are 17,000 children in foster care in the state.

An interim House committee met this year over the cases of 10 children who died from abuse or neglect in fiscal year 2013, up from two deaths the previous year. In 2014, three died in foster care.

The committee offered recommendations to the Legislature after it found that inadequate resources and a limited number of workers were affecting how much time each worker could spend with a child.

But lawmakers fell short when it came to finding ways to reduce caseloads for Child Protective Services caseworkers that could give them necessary one-on-one time with children.

House Bill 993, authored by Rep. Armando Walle, D-Houston, would have directed the Department of Family and Protective Services to work toward ensuring that the average load for caseworkers does not exceed a “prescribed target.”

Despite the loose language of the bill, it fell short because of the price tag attached to adding more caseworkers.

“There’s no will to expend the money,” Walle said. “That’s why it makes me even angrier, because we have the money to do it.”

Walle said he plans to file the legislation until it can be accepted by his colleagues.

“It’s not an option to not take care of these kids,” Walle said.

Texas caseworkers have almost double the number of cases than the national recommendation. Each Texas CPS caseworker manages an average of 28 cases at any given time, according to Ashley Harris, child welfare policy associate for the advocacy group Texans Care for Children.

“If there are still too many children and families they have to manage at one time, none of these improvements will be meaningful,” Harris said.

However, lawmakers made strides when it came to standardizing the foster care system this session.

One bill authored by Sen. Royce West, D-Dallas, would mandate trauma screenings no later than 45 days after a child is removed from his or her home by CPS. The bill has already been signed into law by Gov. Greg Abbott.

Harris said the new law would make it easier to place children appropriately the first time around and would “ensure that all children coming into the foster care system receive comprehensive evaluations.”

Lawmakers also approved a bill that would increase the amount of training, to 35 hours, that a foster parent must have before being verified as a foster or adoptive home. The bill still requires Abbott’s approval.

The Department of Family and Protective Services requires at least 16 hours of training, with little direction for private agencies overseeing the training. The low numbers of hours of training for foster parents were pointed out when reviewing cases of children who died in care.

“It’s unfortunate it took tragedy to make policymakers see there needs to be change,” Harris said.

But one San Antonio family has yet to run into problems with the scrutinized system.

Damian Sherwood, 17, became friends with Arturo and Elizabeth Ozuna’s two sons while playing football for Brackenridge High School.

Sherwood had been living for three years at St. PJ’s Children’s Home, a nonprofit group in San Antonio that opens its doors to an average of 120 kids each day who are victims of abuse or neglect and need emergency care.

The home used to provide long-term residential care for children, but when it switched to emergency care only, Sherwood needed a place to live.

After undergoing background checks to spend several weekends and a Thanksgiving break together, the Ozunas decided they wanted Sherwood to stick around.

“My wife always wanted three kids, but this one came faster than we thought and grew faster than we thought,” Arturo Ozuna said.

St. PJ’s helped the family complete necessary foster care paperwork and training.

According to CEO James Castro, all children, including Damien, receive a full trauma evaluation within 14 days of arriving at the home, and the group provides training for those who want to become foster parents.

“I think the system overall has too many children,” Castro said.

The new legislation will allow providers such as St. Joseph’s to work closely with CPS to help make final decisions about the child.

Ozuna said he didn’t have bad experiences under the current system: The caseworker was always available to help, and the training was manageable.

“We knew what we were doing,” Ozuna said. “We were ready.”

ncobler@express-news.net

Twitter: @nicolecobler

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