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Madeline McClure: Time to reconstruct Texas’ foster care system

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(By TexProtects founding CEO Madeline McClure) The recent federal court decision against Texas’ foster care system reads like the screenplay for a horror movie. I was sickened and depressed for days after I read it, because I knew this was not fiction. Almost 100 of the decision’s 260 pages recounts the stories of the plaintiffs, detailing the real-life atrocities they suffered throughout their wrecked childhoods.

What makes their tales so nauseatingly, mind-numbingly appalling, is not just the abuse or neglect that landed these children in foster care to begin with, but what happened to them once they were in the “protective” custody of the Texas’ Department of Family and Protective Services (DFPS).

More than a decade ago, I founded the nonprofit TexProtects on the premise that prevention is the best solution to eradicating child abuse. Judge Janis Jack’s decision reinforced this belief, and now the state must thoughtfully respond by redoubling its prevention efforts. The foster care system must be overhauled, mainly by keeping kids from ever entering state care. We must expand primary prevention programs, family support home visiting programs, education programs, traumatic head injury prevention programs and other efforts shown to save both lives and state resources.

When abuse is not preventable — when their safety is in clear and immediate danger — children must be removed from their families. But most all removals should be temporary. Legislators and child advocates should center efforts on ultimately banning the designation “Permanent Managing Conservatorship” (state long-term custody). The goal should be to phase out the need for damaging and costly residential treatment centers, group foster homes and other institutional care. “Permanent” and “State Conservatorship” should never be used in the same phrase. The state is not a parent.

The goal should be to preserve the family unit with no removal or to safely reunify the child with family.

Parents who have had their child removed need the most support of all: simply handing them a list of programs to complete — programs that lack an evaluation for efficacy — and expecting families to magically self-reform is ludicrous. These parents especially need the attention from a family support navigator that will help them succeed.

With an intense focus on reunification and family preservation, the reduction in the need for long-term foster care will more than cover the costs of using evidence-based models and best practices. Foster care cost Texas nearly $403 million in 2015 alone, more than $24,000 per child. The average length of stay in foster care is three years, costing taxpayers $72,000 per child. Compare that with evidence-based family support home visiting: Approximately $9,000 for two years per family.

The main contributing factors to the success of SafeCare, a home-based family support service, are that the home visitor is well-trained, well-supported, her caseload is capped, and her compensation is fair and market-driven. That’s what all CPS caseworkers need to succeed as well.

Parental rights should be terminated only after intensive efforts at family reunification and where parental rehabilitation is beyond hope. And then, children should not be allowed to languish in foster care indefinitely. We must focus on finding close relatives as the first option for substitute placement, leading to adoption so the child can prosper in a permanent home, not permanent state “care.”

Children should be placed in single-child or sibling-group, foster-to-adopt homes only when a safe relative’s home isn’t available. The state also must strengthen existing faith-based efforts to recruit potential foster-to-adopt parents every Sunday, at every house of worship across Texas. And foster care subsidies should be cost-of-living adjusted, not one-size-fits-all. That will increase capacity in more expensive major metropolitan areas where most children are removed and need is highest.

For youth who are too damaged and have behavioral problems, Texas must develop multi-dimensional treatment foster care, an evidence-based alternative to group or residential treatment that has demonstrated up to a 50 percent decrease in young people who need to be institutionalized — and a $4.85 return for every $1 invested.

I recognize that most foster caregivers are wonderful, selfless and caring souls and that progress is being made in changing the system. Commissioner John Specia is providing solid leadership at DFPS — a role he assumed after most of the incidents forming the backbone of this court case occurred.

Specia’s leadership must be bolstered by lawmakers in the upcoming 2017 legislative session. We don’t need more tinkering-around-the-edges “reform.” We need reconstruction that redirects resources to programs that show proof of efficacy to save lives and taxpayer dollars.

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Madeline McClure of Dallas is the founding CEO of TexProtects, the Texas Association for the Protection of Children. Reach her through www.texprotects.org.

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