Several years ago, lawmakers directed the Department of Family and Protective Services to start tracking specific data about how parental alcohol or substance abuse affects children involved in Child Protective Services cases. The state agency has said it didn’t have enough funding to do it – until now. KXAN investigators look at how the data will help target resources to address the state’s ongoing foster care crisis.
AUSTIN (KXAN) — As a former foster mother, Cameron Hernholm knows how traumatic it can be for a child when they are removed from their home and enter the Child Protective Services system.
It’s especially true in Texas, she said, where a shortage of beds at residential treatment facilities and in foster homes over the last few years left hundreds of children spending nights in state office buildings and hotel rooms, waiting for placement. Lawmakers, advocates and even a panel of national child welfare experts discussed solutions — including ways to prevent children from entering state custody in the first place.
“Children have much better outcomes if they are able to stay with their permanent and biological family, rather than entering the foster care system,” Hernholm explained.
She now serves as the Chief Philanthropy Officer at Nexus Recovery Center in Dallas. They house mothers undergoing treatment from substance abuse and addiction with their children, in order to keep families together. They also offer resources for pregnant women in recovery.
“It is a very vulnerable place, and typically what we find is why a mother wouldn’t get treatment is because she doesn’t know what would happen to her children if she were to seek treatment,” she said. “Do I lose my kid? Or do I go and get treatment for an illness that I know I need help with?”
According to national data from the Adoption and Foster Care Analysis and Reporting System, Texas has one of the highest rates of children being removed from their homes due to alcohol or drug abuse by their parents. In 2019, more than 60% of cases in Texas indicated substance abuse as a condition of the child’s removal. The national average was under 40%.
Hernholm said her team at Nexus serves more than 2,000 mothers and children every year with its different programs. They started tracking how many removals have been stopped and how many children have been reunified with their family due to Nexus’ services, but she said it would be helpful to see this kind of data on a statewide level.
In 2013 and again in 2019, lawmakers directed the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services (DFPS) to collect specific data on the issue, including:
- the number of children reported to the department who at birth tested positive for the presence of alcohol or a controlled substance
- the controlled substances for which the children tested positive
- the number of children who were removed from their homes and have been diagnosed as having a disability or chronic medical condition resulting from the presence of alcohol or controlled substances
- the number of parents who test positive for the presence of a controlled substance during a department investigation of a report of abuse or neglect of the parent’s child
“The idea here is: let’s get tracking on it,” said Texas Sen. Charles Perry, R-Lubbock, at a committee hearing in 2019. “We should know, and I think foster parents specifically have a right to know.”
However, nearly four years later, DFPS released a memo stating it did not have the funding to create this report.
The memo explained the agency’s automated case tracking and information management system, called IMPACT, may have this kind of information entered in narrative form, but there was no way to pull it out into aggregate data without reading every investigation manually.
“This would be costly and time-consuming since the data is manually entered on a case-by-case basis and not readily searchable,” the memo read.
Then, just a few weeks later after KXAN asked the agency about the lack of funding, a DFPS spokesperson told us it found the necessary money to update the IMPACT system, using existing state appropriations. The spokesperson said those updates are scheduled for fiscal year 2023.
“The data that’s out there is great, but the more data we have access to — the more sophisticated that data is — the better we’re able to be with the services that we provide,” said Jesse Booher with DePelchin Children’s Center.
He explained that DFPS already made it easy for foster and adoption agencies such as Depelchin to access this type of information on a case-by-case basis through the narratives kept in the system. However, until now, the state has not been able to compile aggregate data about substance use and its impacts.
Booher explained that DFPS does track certain “proxy measures” that are often used as indicators of potential substance abuse, such as neglectful supervision, which can help target programming and funding.
According to the DFPS October report, neglectful supervision was found in more than 67% of CPS investigations.
Still, Booher told KXAN that a wider view of the issue with aggregate data could help everyone involved know how to best target resources.
“To reach as many people who need our services as possible in the highest quality way. And data is what allows us to do that effectively and efficiently,” he said.