March 18, 2007, 1:13PM
Copyright 2007 Houston Chronicle
In the waiting room on Chimney Rock, on Houston's west side, books and toys share space with abused or neglected children who read and play while they wait for relatives to be contacted or foster families to be located.
But if no one takes them by nightfall, the waiting room furniture is pushed aside, the television shut off. Any one of five baby cribs lined up against the wall can be pulled to the room's center as well as six green rollaway beds stored down the hall.
Across Texas, rooms in Child Protective Services offices are being transformed into makeshift dormitories for children who often are the hardest to place in the state's 34,000-bed foster care system.
But overcrowding is just one of the problems facing CPS. Two years after lawmakers revamped the way Texas investigated child abuse, the state faces a second round of scrutiny — this time to its $400 million foster care system.
As staffing and technique improved on the investigative end of the child protective system, the number of abused children taken into custody grew, putting the squeeze on an already crowded foster care system whose staffers are now the new overworked caseworker.
In January, the first month the Texas CPS began counting its overnight charges, at least 37 hard-to-place children slept in CPS offices. Of those, 32 spent a whole night, with the rest spending just a few hours before a home could be found. In one case, a child slept four nights in Dallas-area offices.
Twenty-two of those children stayed at the CPS children's waiting room on Chimney Rock. On March 5, there were 13 children, including three babies, who slept in the waiting room while staff members kept watch.
Houston has more children staying overnight in the waiting room in part because most of the state's facilities for emotionally troubled youths are here. Once children are discharged, CPS must find foster homes for them, and they are not always immediately ready.
"A lot of them are babies and teenagers. Babies and teenagers are hard to place," said Carrie Coleman, the CPS night supervisor at the Chimney Rock site.
Two years ago, lawmakers revamped the way the state investigates child abuse after the seemingly preventable deaths of abused children revealed an overburdened and underfunded system.
Hundreds of investigators were added. Better interview techniques were adopted. Pay was raised. Quickly, investigators, with more manageable caseloads, were able to better track their charges.
Lawmakers always had planned to reform foster care after plugging the structural holes in the state's abuse-investigation system in 2005.
"We knew it was a massive undertaking," state Sen. Jane Nelson, R-Flower Mound, said of revamping social services.
And now, it's an urgent one. Since September, three foster care children— Christian Nieto, Katherine Frances and Andrew Burd — have died in foster homes selected by private contractors, revealing a lack of direct oversight of the companies' placements.
Placement needs increase
Each year, about 20,000 abused and neglected Texas children spend time in foster care. Their stays can last a few days or years. Another 10,000 are placed with friends, families or adoptive homes.
Since 2004, the population of abused children placed in temporary foster homes or facilities has risen by at least 29 percent, or 6,465 more children.
Although there are more than 34,000 foster care beds available, many must be reserved for those children with serious emotional, physical or medical problems.
"The number of residential contract providers has failed to keep pace with this growing population, especially for those children with specialized and intense service needs," Patrick Crimmins, a Department of Family and Protective Services spokesman, said. "Further, there have been several closures and suspensions of facilities which serve the specialized and intense child populations."
In the background of all of these issues facing DFPS is the nagging question: Should the state get out of the foster care business entirely and hand off the daily management of cases to private companies?
It's a debate that bubbles up almost every legislative session.
And just as it seemed the Texas Legislature would look at privatization of foster care, the three foster care deaths inside homes overseen by private companies threw into question whether the private sector could produce a better system.
A national issue
Texas is not alone in trying to find a better way.
"Texas is experiencing the same challenges as all the other states," said Maria Scannapieco, director of the Center for Child Welfare at the University of Texas at Arlington.
California, Texas, New York and Florida have the largest number of children. Texas ranks second to California in the total number of children and third when it comes to the number of children in foster care.
Texas leads the other three states when it comes to the monthly amount it reimburses a foster parent. A minimum of $20.56 per day pays for basic foster care services for a child without any serious emotional, medical or psychiatric problems.
"Do we know of a day care center who would provide 24-hour care for your child for $20 a day?" asked Estella Olguin, a CPS spokeswoman in Houston.
Like many states, Texas always has had a hybrid type of foster care, with foster homes managed both by the state and the private sector.
More than 300 private, nonprofit child-placement agencies oversee 25,973 foster care beds. The state oversees 8,123 beds.
"That's kind of the way it is done throughout history and through the country," said Scott McCown, executive director of the Austin-based Center for Public Policy Priorities.
And the system as it stands is a good one, he said, at least from a cost standpoint, because the state acts as a competitor to keep the private sector's costs at a reasonable level.
"If I, as the state, go out of business completely, you (the private sector) can charge whatever you want," McCown said.
"Why do it?" he asks of making all of foster care a private venture. "There's no advantage to it."
A 'haphazard system'
But officials at private nonprofits, such as Houston's DePelchin Children's Center, say they feel their hands are tied. Company foster care homes can house only the child. The state controls all services provided to the child.
"It's sort of a haphazard system out there," said Dr. Curt Mooney, CEO of DePelchin, an agency that has cared for 645 foster care children since Jan. 1. "We get the child, and the case manager from the state has oversight. If we need to move the child from one place or another, we have to contact the state. They get the final word on where that child goes."
For foster parents who work for private companies and nonprofits, the presence of the state is never far away.
Walter Weakly and his wife, Karen, are Houston foster parents affiliated with a nonprofit, The Bair Foundation, because its Christian tenets match their own.
"It can get discouraging with all the red tape, and that interferes with the parenting," said Weakly, who with his wife fosters six boys. "I have to fill out a lot of paperwork when I could be playing basketball with them."
And considering the state's base rate is $20.56 a day per child, you'd have to be crazy to be in it for the money, he said.
Still, the couple wouldn't trade the experience for anything.
"We had a passion and a desire to help kids who didn't have moms and dads," Weakly said.
Roy Block, president of the Texas Foster Families Association, has worked for the state as a foster parent and now works for a private agency.
"I don't think anyone comes up with anything better than privatization," Block said. "The whole idea behind this is: We need to have better outcomes. Children get lost in the system because the workers are overburdened."
DFPS has asked for nearly 300 more workers to handle the foster care caseload and another $90 million from lawmakers.
It's a proposal Nelson supports. "I will be a strong advocate for that," she said.
But it's not only a problem for state workers whose foster care caseload is growing. The recent foster care deaths spurred calls for tougher background checks of prospective parents affiliated with private companies.
Cases in point
Last September, Christian Nieto, 16 months old, died of head injuries in a privately managed Corsicana foster home 60 miles from where the state thought he was living.
His foster mother, who insists the boy already was injured when he was transferred to her care, has been charged with capital murder.
In October, 4-year-old Andrew Burd was pronounced dead on arrival at a Corpus Christi hospital after being forced to drink a mixture of water and Cajun seasoning.
His foster parents, who were in the process of adopting him when he died, have been charged with capital murder, and DFPS halted future foster care placements through the company that approved them.
And in December, 6-year-old Katherine Frances was found fatally body-slammed in her Dallas-area foster home, one affiliated with a private company. The foster mother's 14-year-old biological son was charged with murder.
"Any death of a child is going to get the public's attention, and it should," Nelson said.
Between August 2003 and August 2006, 14 children died from abuse by foster parents, the agency said. Thirty-two more children died in foster care from injuries they sustained from their own parents, relatives or friends before CPS removed them from their homes.
Those 46 deaths represent less than 1 percent of the children in Texas foster care each year.
But the fact that the three most recent deaths occurred while in the hands of privately managed foster homes has Nelson and others skittish about handing over all of foster care services to the private sector and has raised more questions about better oversight.
Foster care, she said, is not like some sort of manufacturing process that can be outsourced.
Where a manufacturer might wait for new vendor kinks to work themselves out, there's no room for error when it comes to abused children, she said.
"I have always been cautious when discussing privatization in this area because we're dealing with children," Nelson said.
But she's also interested in anyone who claims to be able to provide better results for children in foster care.
Looking for answers
Nelson, who has introduced a foster care reform package this session, said she's found that states that transferred all of foster care to private companies are considering taking some of that control back.
And states that control all aspects of foster care are looking at giving parts of it to private vendors.
"I don't know what the answer is. I think everyone's looking. The bottom line is whatever we have in place is protecting these kids," she said.
Despite her wariness, Nelson's reform bill proposes that 10 percent of the current foster care management's duties be outsourced to private firms as a sort of test.
"We would like to do that piece of it," said DePelchin's Mooney. "We would have greater impact on the families if we could do that."
Mooney stops short of criticizing the job the DFPS does. "The state caseworkers are good people. But they're trying to do so many things."