Proposed budget cuts could so severely underfund the Department of Family and Protective Services that hundreds of foster children would be forced to live in the agency's offices, a department official told Texas lawmakers Tuesday.
The draft budget being considered in the Senate could result in a situation seen four years ago when 611 foster children lived in offices instead of homes, Department Commissioner Anne Heiligenstein told members of the Senate Finance Committee.
The Senate's proposed budget reduces the rate that foster care providers are reimbursed and doesn't fund inevitable caseload growth, which Heiligenstein expects will affect the department's ability to find homes for foster children.
The budget calls for reducing the reimbursement rate by 5 percent, but the department would need to reduce it by another 7 percent to adjust for the zero-funded foster care growth. That would leave emergency shelter services, residential treatment centers and the basic foster care agency receiving a less than substantial repayment, she said.
"When we do that, I will not have the providers I need," Heiligenstein said. "I worry about going back to years like 2007, when we had children staying in our offices because I could not get providers to take our children."
Many faith-based and mission-oriented treatment centers conduct private fundraising to compensate for the reimbursement, but Heiligenstein said she's concerned about centers operating with insufficient funding.
The state currently pays a foster parent a minimum of $674 a month to take care of a healthy foster child. While some parents might continue taking care of foster children for a reduced rate, some won't, especially with reduced funding for other services.
The department serves as a legal guardian to about 28,000 to 29,000 children in Texas and is obligated to serve eligible children and families no matter what the state budget provides, Legislative Budget Board analyst Nancy Millard said.
But problems will arise when in-home service caseloads accelerate to an unmanageable level, Heiligenstein said.
The draft budget would cut Child Protective Services by 66 units, forcing investigative caseworkers to take on 15 percent more cases. Caseworkers who work with children in their own homes would see a 33 percent increase their case loads.
Families adopting children may not receive financial assistance from the state anymore under the proposed Senate bill. Heiligenstein said those subsidies have historically encouraged families to adopt.
Without the incentive, many foster children who suffer mental health or developmental issues may be left without adoptive parents, she said.
The proposed bill also doesn't fund day care services for caregivers in the Relative Caregiver Placement program, which many relatives of foster children depend on. While the state can't stop the growth of the foster care population, the department does try to slow growth with programs where family members take care of children, she said.
"Children in alternative placements have far better outcomes than children who stay in the system," Heiligenstein said, noting that children raised in the system are more likely to "have low education levels and face homelessness, pregnancy and incarceration."
The department also is requesting additional lawyers to deal with cases where care providers have been accused of abusing foster children. Such cases have been backlogged to an unacceptable extent, Heiligenstein said.
Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, urged the department to "apply an urgency to the situation that most Texans will understand."