Texas’ foster system is plagued by problems. Critics say new overhaul isn’t helping

Texas’ foster care system has long been plagued by abuse and neglect allegations, and a lack of placements for vulnerable children. The state’s new community-based care approach aims to change that.

But critics say the new system doesn’t solve all of the problems, and they’re worried that privatization means less transparency and accountability.

Community-based care, as it’s being rolled out in Texas, takes the responsibilities of foster child placement and oversight out of the hands of the state and places it with nonprofit organizations.

The Texas legislature voted to move to the new format in 2017, shortly after the death of a 15-year-old girl who was in CPS care in Houston. It was also in the wake of a class-action lawsuit against the state filed in 2011. In the course of that suit, U.S. District Court Judge Janice Graham Jack of Corpus Christi placed the state’s foster care system under federal oversight.

Under the new system, the state contracts with organizations that act like middlemen in each region of the state. The organizations are responsible for finding placements for kids, essentially doing the jobs that used to be handled by Child Protective Services workers. In theory, the nonprofits have more familiarity with their local communities and can more effectively connect children and families with resources they need.

Community-based care still places some kids in non-family settings, including residential treatment centers such as Fort Worth’s Fort Behavioral Health. According to state numbers, more than 1,000 of the 10,000 kids in foster care were in residential treatment centers at the end of August. That placement number is down from a high of more than 1,700 kids each year from 2017 to 2019.

To North Texans, community-based care might sound familiar. The concept is similar to the “foster care redesign” pilot program that was rolled out in North Texas in 2014. Foster care redesign was a hybrid system where Fort Worth-based provider ACH Child and Family Services coordinated care for children, though the state still had the final say.

ACH started a new division — called Our Community Our Kids — to take charge of the foster care redesign pilot. Then, when the state began rolling out community-based care several years later, Our Community Our Kids became the Fort Worth region’s contractor.

ACH, on its website, says the new system “gives local communities the flexibility and authority to make significant improvements” to the foster care system.

Our Community Our Kids is still among just a handful of nonprofit foster care providers, as the new private system has been slow to spread across the state, and is not slated to be fully rolled out until 2029.

One of the most-touted benefits of the new system is that, according to the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services website, it can keep “Texas children in foster care closer to home and connected to families and friends.”

Texas CASA, an organization involved in policy advocacy, published a 2023 report on community-based care. The report highlights transition challenges such as workforce and capacity shortages, but it also focused on the benefits of the new system.

Community-based care aims to place foster kids closer to their homes, which will allow family and caseworkers to monitor the kids more effectively, said Sarah Crockett, the director of public policy at Texas CASA.

Keeping kids closer to home, alongside increased state scrutiny due to the ongoing federal oversight of the foster care system, is making an impact, Crockett said.

“The system is sort of slowly righting itself,” she said. “But it’s still going to take a while and it’s going take additional funding to get us to where we ideally should be.”

Not everyone is convinced that the new system actually provides the benefits it aims to provides.

The state workers union has been vocally opposed to community-based care, a transition that means fewer state jobs. But Myko Gedutis, the organizing coordinator for the Texas State Employees Union, said it isn’t just about the jobs. The union is opposed to privatization because it doesn’t work, he said.

“These jobs exist to serve vulnerable Texans. And when they’re outsourced, we know from experience and from what’s happening right now that the needs of the community, the needs of those kids, are not getting addressed,” Gedutis told the Star-Telegram.

He said the new private system offers bad actors more places to hide from state regulators and public scrutiny.

“It’s just offloading the problems to the private sector,” Gedutis said. “All the problems that existed, they continue to exist, there’s just less transparency.”

Privatization has hit serious criticism when it’s been rolled out in states including Kansas and Nebraska. The latter terminated its contract in late 2021 with private foster care provider St. Francis Ministries, which also operates in other states and is the provider in the Texas Panhandle.

One Texas CPS worker, whose identity is known to the Star-Telegram but who requested anonymity in order to speak freely, compared community-based care to the privatization of the prison system.

“I really think it’s a political push. I think they liked the idea, it sounds great on paper, it sells really well. People love saving children,” she said.