What If Texas Fixed Foster Care?

As adults, we look at life and the way things operate and too often say “That can’t happen” or “That’s the way it is.” The problem is that we are adults and not kids. Children have this incredible ability to look at something and say, “Let’s do it.” They don’t analyze the medical costs if they take their bike and speed up a makeshift ramp and end up fracturing their arm. They don’t look at legalities as Robert Kiyosaki, real estate guru and author of “Rich Dad Poor Dad,” and his friend didn’t when as kids, they decided to make their own money by taking lead, heating it up and molding coins. Let’s also not forget that at any time, either of these two boys could have spilled hot metal on themselves and suffered severe burns.

Kids seldom look at situations or ask “What do we need to do this?” It’s always amazing to read about children such as Reegan Welch, an 8-year old girl, who decided to use her birthday party to raise school supplies for area foster children. She didn’t spend weeks mapping out what to do. She made a decision and got it done, raising money in the process. Then there are the two college students, Sade Burrell and Lauro Cons, who co-founded Foster Youth Investment Coalition. Through this organization, these two worked to extend the time foster teens can spend in transitional housing. The result was Senate Bill 1252 that was passed into California law in 2014.

That’s a lot of success spearheaded by children and teens. So let’s try it their way, if only for a moment. Free your mind of rules and “reality” and let’s engage in a little “What If?” with a present day foster care crisis.

Today, Texas has what can aptly be called one of the worst foster care systems in the country. It’s so bad that I’ve covered this crisis in two of my columns, “Texas Foster Children: Research or Scam?” and “Year in Review 2016: Foster Kid Issues.” Here’s a summary:

In December 2015, U.S. District Judge Janis Graham Jack stepped in and approved the cost for research to find solutions to the state’s foster children crisis. In late 2016, a report was delivered that detailed specific changes that were deemed necessary to improve the foster care system. Not one of those 35 recommendations was enacted. Instead, both Texas Gov. Greg Abbott and Attorney General Ken Paxton have fought against initiating any changes to a system where Judge Jack asserted, “Rape, abuse, psychotropic medication and instability are the norm.”

The Texas foster care disaster has reached a level of depravity that matches that of police officers sitting in their cruiser watching while an elderly grandmother is beaten and brutalized or firemen watching a house burn down knowing that they could have easily saved the three children still inside. Yes, that level of depravity! That’s today’s reality.

But what if Gov. Abbott decided to make Texas the shining star for foster care in the country? He mandates that all DHH agencies will do a thorough family finding. Standards are set and an oversight committee created to ensure that those standards are met in every case. Agencies would be obligated to go to third-party organizations to perform due diligence where case workers lack the resources or time, a common practice for many areas of foster care. Management would no longer be able to block the use of outside experts because in doing so, the agency would be unable to meet the set standards of family finding due diligence.

At least some of the 35 recommendations would be executed within the next few weeks. With thorough family finding, at least 1,000 of present foster children in group homes could now be placed in kinship care. The savings from this move funds the addition of more caseworkers. Jobs aren’t lost but simply realigned to provide more oversight of children, foster parents and group homes.

These ideas aren’t fantasy or wishful thinking. From the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services, the lowest monthly cost paid for a child to be cared for by a relative, referred to as “basic kinship care,” is $693, while the cost for that same service level in a group home is $1,356 or roughly twice the cost.

Casey Family Programs reports that in 2014, there were 30,100 foster children in Texas. If we take just 1,000 of those children (3.3%), locate their relatives, remove them from group home care which costs more than $1.3 million annually, and put them into kinship care at a cost of only $693,000, we just saved the state of Texas and its taxpayers $662,700. With that kind of savings, do you think it's possible that the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services could fund more case workers? I do, and with this significant disparity in the numbers, what is keeping officials from doing the right thing for Texas foster children?

What if we, the public, did more than just whine and critique the system? It’s our millions of dollars that could be put to better use. If we feel that leaving foster children to spend years alone in a government institution isn’t right, then it’s time to flex our influence.

Let's get one thing absolutely clear: There is not a foster care money problem. That is a lie perpetrated by politicians and foster care management. Numbers don't lie. We just looked at the savings based on only 3.3% of foster children being moved to kinship care. What if 7% of these kids were moved where the state is now saving $1,415,904? What if Governor Abbott and Attorney General Paxton put the full weight of the state government behind this project?

The positive impact of placing foster children with relatives is so important that the Annie E. Casey Foundation, one of the country’s largest and most prestigious foster children non-profits, created a three-minute video, “Every Kid Needs a Family: A Message to Caseworkers.” Former foster children share and plead with case workers to “persist in connecting teens with family — because every teen needs a family.”

Many teens who thought they could go it alone without any family connections explained how reality had set in. They recognized too late how much they needed a family safety net. For thousands of foster children, once they age out, it’s difficult if not impossible for them to locate distant relatives on their own.

“I thought I knew everything when I decided to age out [of foster care] at 18” without family relationships, says Stephanie LaPlante from Springfield, Massachusetts. “But then I realized I didn’t.” Says Jamole Callahan of Columbus, Ohio: “The most important thing I want caseworkers to know is that every teen needs that chance for a forever family.”

Foster care advocates realized this vital need and succeeded in having changes made that are reflected in the Fostering Connections Act of 2008, which mandates all foster care agencies to locate and notify parents as well as other adult relatives.

We, the people, need to stop buying into the idea that “it’s the way government works.” Texas is solidly Republican, and any true Republican government official should salivate at the thought of less government while saving more than $600,000 dollars. That's a win-win that any Republican can embrace. So what if Texas officials started to act in a more civic-minded way, doing what's right for their party members, registered voters and foster children? What if the governor made Texas the role model for foster care reform? It's doable because, sadly, few states have so much to work with as does Texas, so if the state did make even mediocre improvements, those would look amazing compared to the broken system that exists right now.

No matter which side of the aisle you and your representative sits on, successfully caring for foster children is good for everyone. Democrats can love the outcome of saving children from harm and placing them with relatives where the kids can now have stability and love. Republicans can embrace the results because it means less government bloat and better use of public funds while still giving foster children a chance at a brighter future.

With an effective change in policy we, the public, can know that our social contract to care for these innocent children has been met in a more caring, humane manner than leaving them to rot in a system that was never intended for long-term child care. Yet we can’t lay all of the blame on foster care agencies. There are too many people in power who are looking the other way or colluding to keep the money mill running while essentially imprisoning tens of thousands of children because no one will push to do everything possible to locate and notify parents and other family members. This is so wrong that it ought to be criminal.

But what if, like children, we adults let go of outdated, false ideology and start asking, “How can we make this happen?” When we do that, the mental doors will open. We will see answers. We will insist on action and hold our politicians responsible for their inaction. And just like children, an idea won’t take years before it’s executed. It can happen like “that.” But only if we go from “What if?” to “Let’s do it.” Foster children deserve so much better and there’s no reason why they can’t have a brighter future starting this week.