Senator Lucio's Letterhead

OP-ED FROM SEN. EDDIE LUCIO, JR.

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
Wednesday, April 12, 2006
CONTACT: Doris Sanchez , Press Secretary
Phone: (512) 463-0127

Legislative efforts to end child abuse locally and in state

Regardless of what side of the political aisle they represent, most policymakers agree that government has an obligation to society's most vulnerable population: children victimized by abuse and neglect.

In an effort to spread awareness on this important issue, April has been designated as Child Abuse Prevention Month across the country. I think it is important to step back and examine how effectively we are dealing with abuse at the state level.

In Texas, it is the office of Child Protective Services (CPS) within the Department of Family and Protective Services (DFPS) that is charged with this responsibility. DFPS is organized into 11 geographic regions, and five districts throughout the state. The entirety of South Texas is a part of Region 11, extending from the tip of Texas to Bee and Refugio counties.

In Cameron and Hidalgo counties alone, CPS conducted 9,101 investigations alleging abuse or neglect in 2004. In 6,518 of these cases, abuse or neglect was confirmed, and 172 children were actually removed from their homes and placed in substitute care by CPS.

Over the past few years child deaths resulting from abuse and neglect have reached indefensible levels. In 2004, 204 children in Texas died from maltreatment. Many of these cases could have been prevented with adequate resources and staffing, but years of chronic under-funding have limited the Department's abilities.

Doing its rightful part, the Texas Legislature made sweeping reforms during the 79th Legislative Session. In addition to a $2.1 billion budget increase in DFPS's biennial budget, the passage of Senate Bill 6 created new protective policies, such as a mandatory 24-hour CPS response time for high priority abuse reports and a 72-hour limit for all others. Legislative changes will also lead to the hiring of 2,500 additional workers for investigative, administrative and support positions in CPS over the next few years.

The intent of SB 6 is to decrease per-worker caseloads, to increase coordination between caseworkers and local law enforcement, and to provide new technical support to investigative workers. I applaud these efforts and believe they represent the state's dedication to creating a better child welfare system.

In spite of the general consensus that we should better protect our children, controversy exists as to the best methods. Some child welfare advocates argue for increasing contracts between the state and private care providers for service delivery. Others believe since the state is the conservator, and therefore the "protector" of children in CPS care, they can best administer these programs.

For years, the Department has outsourced foster care and adoptive services to private vendors. In these cases, the state contracts with a private company that provides services such as finding and recruiting foster families and placing children in these homes. However, the bill requires the privatization of many more key functions that have previously been the Department's responsibility.

SB 6 requires that the outsourcing of substitute care and case management begin next year and should be implemented statewide by 2011. The privatization of case management means that although the Department will remain the conservator of c children in CPS care, a private vendor will be responsible for overseeing most aspects of the children's lives, including their education and access to medical care.

During this period of transition, it is crucial that we remain vigilant about protecting this precious segment of society. The reforms that were authorized in SB 6 are well intended, but it is crucial that we monitor them closely to avoid unforeseen pitfalls associated with such an extreme transition. The recent privatization of CHIP, Medicaid, and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) indicates that such changes are not likely to be undertaken without glitches.

There are many questions we must begin asking to prepare for these impending changes. We must consider how we can maintain motivation among current workers operating under the fear they'll lose their jobs to a private vendor. We also need to be assured that the state is prepared to quickly step in if a private contractor fails. Finally, there should be no doubt about who will be held accountable if a child in care is harmed.

Although I do not oppose the outsourcing of certain governmental functions to private firms, I do believe that when our children are involved, privatization should not be utilized in an attempt to reduce costs. If we are truly interested in "fixing the system," we must do so holistically.

Resources must not be diverted from one area to another, but should be increased across-the-board. Hiring more investigative workers should help prevent the abuse and death of children, but conversely, we must be prepared to handle more children in foster care, from the day they enter the system to the day they are released.

As always, if you have any input or questions regarding these or other matters, please do not hesitate to contact Doris Sanchez, my press secretary, 512-463-0385. Ms. Kate Volti, policy analyst, handles this issue for the Senator.

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