The sun sets behind the Texas Capitol in Austin in May. Lawmakers focused many of their changes to the state’s foster care system this year on keeping kids out of state care | Photo Credit: Evan L'Roy via The Texas Tribune

By Sneha Dey

Originally appeared in the Texas Tribune

Legislators also passed bills that will provide foster kids entering the troubled system with duffel bags or backpacks and those aging out of the system with help setting up bank accounts.

Faced with a troubled foster care system and a 12-year-long lawsuit for putting children in state custody at risk, Texas legislators this year made sweeping changes to state agencies that look after vulnerable kids removed from their homes.

But legislators’ focus was less on conditions for children in the system and more on reducing the number of kids entering state care. The Legislature zeroed in on how child abuse investigations kick off and play out, making it harder for the Department of Family and Protective Services to remove children from homes, saying parents facing abuse accusations are entitled to more rights.

While lawmakers ironed out new policies on investigations to prevent kids from entering the system, they stuck to basic fixes for children already in the state’s care. In one instance, they mandated the state provide foster kids duffel bags and backpacks — instead of trash bags — to transport their belongings.

For years, the state has been entangled in a federal lawsuit for putting children in state custody at risk. The judge in the case first declared in 2015 that children age out of the system more damaged than when they enter. Since then, court watchdogs have found that caretakers misused psychotropic drugs, residential facilities housing kids were not in compliance with safety standards and that the state child welfare agency was not tracking child-on-child abuse.

Some of the biggest bills regulating the state’s foster care system this year focus on keeping kids with their families when possible, pointing to the trauma that comes with entering the system. As a result, caseworkers will have to document their efforts to keep a child with their family; the state abuse hotline will no longer accept anonymous tips against parents; and parents facing abuse and neglect accusations will see bolstered legal rights and legal representation.

“We’re in a period in history right now where things are swinging very much towards having the smallest possible system, really prioritizing parents’ rights,” said Sarah Crockett, the director of public policy at foster kid advocacy group Texas CASA.

It’s an approach supported by both ​​social conservatives who tout family values and progressive child welfare abolitionists who want to do away with the system. At the state and federal levels, these child welfare advocates have backed policies that help children stay with their families and limit them from entering the foster care system.

“The language being used is now much more uniformly centered around family preservation, which is a massive culture shift,” said Andrew Brown, a policy advocate at the conservative Texas Public Policy Foundation. “I’m hearing more mainstream conversations about the trauma of removal.”

The focus on parents facing investigations also aligns with a fast-burgeoning movement within the Republican Party to give parents more rights in everything from using tax dollars to subsidize private school tuition to limiting what lessons kids can receive from teachers.

But limiting when and how the state can intervene is being met with some anxiety.

“This system is traumatic and stressful for children and parents. I absolutely do think that we should do everything that we can to keep the child with their family,” Crockett said. “And it’s also true that child abuse is still happening. And so how do we balance those two things? I think it’s not straightforward, and that’s what makes it really hard.”