AUSTIN (KXAN) — Texas foster children need more mental health support and family-based placement options, according to an expert panel convened to address the crisis in the state’s child welfare system.

Three national experts began evaluating the system late last year to propose solutions to the problem of hundreds of children sleeping in state office buildings, hotels and other unlicensed placements.

They filed their report Monday, which notes “children deserve to be mentally, emotionally, and physically safe and cared for by family and in settings that permit them to heal, develop and thrive in normalized and non-restrictive environments.” It goes on to state foster children should only be placed in large group or congregate care settings in rare cases, and the state needs to bolster services and supports for entire families. The experts also emphasized they do not suggest any increased development or use of congregate facilities in the state.

In November 2021, the Department of Family and Protective Services (DFPS) reported 236 children spent at least one day without placement. By the end of the month, 16% of these children had gone without placement for 36 days or longer.

Thirty-three percent of the children classified as “without placement” in November need a specialized level of care; 34% need intensive care. Twenty-two percent of them had been discharged from psychiatric hospitals with no plan for their next placement.

According to the report, people often blame the rise in children without placement on a lack of providers willing to serve kids with levels of need this high. Parents relinquishing their rights, because of their inability to access mental health services for their children was also highlighted as a root cause, along with the pandemic, insufficient provider rates, a lack of coordination between agencies and stricter regulation of existing providers.

However, the report emphasized the “core failure is the absence of a fully developed system of care, including home and community-based resources, targeted and well-resourced treatment, and appropriate placement services matched to children’s needs.”

It went on to say, “When asked, youth are very clear that they do not want to return to a group home and want to be placed with family.”

Treatment Foster Care

Scott Lundy, President and CEO of Arrow Child and Family Ministries, said he has always believed family-based placements help children thrive, but he knows not every foster family is equipped to care for a child with severe trauma or mental health needs.

In additional to traditional foster care and adoption services, Arrow is working to expand their Treatment Foster Care (TFC) program, where families receive special, trauma-informed care training. They also partner each family with a behavioral health specialist and a licensed clinician as their case-worker — often with a lower case load to enable them to give more attention to each child’s needs.

“I can’t even explain how much I believe in this model and how much I believe this is the answer,” he said.

The panel of experts reviewing Texas’ system agreed, suggesting the state form a plan to expand these kinds of TFC programs over the next 60 days.

With around 50 families participating in this program currently, Lundy said they have seen success. He said their children placed in TFC had seen a 70% likelihood in “stepping down” the level of care they needed; he compared that to 30% for many residential treatment facilities.

Kinship Caregivers

The panel also criticized the state for not prioritizing kinship placements, where kids are placed with other relatives or extended family members to live. The report calls them “the backbone of child welfare systems.”

In fact, the experts noted the Texas Legislature allocated millions of dollars for foster care providers and building capacity but said none of this funding has been made available to kinship caregivers.

“Despite the goal of supporting kinship care, kin caregivers in Texas (and in many other states) are treated far differently than traditional foster parents, receiving less compensation and attention from case managers, having fewer rights, receiving less consideration by the courts, and being offered fewer services. In Texas, kinship providers are paid $11.55 per day, compared to daily rates for foster parents ranging from $47.37 at the moderate level to $92.43 at the intense level,” the report reads.

The report encourages DFPS to immediately:

  • Assess its current practice and policy related to kinship care
  • Adopt a relative-first placement strategy and build practices to support it
  • Request funds to increase rates for kinship care so they are equivalent to rates for non-kin foster care
  • Appropriate funding for a kinship caregiver support pool from the American Rescue Plan Act funds
  • Expand mental health services or kindship families