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Expert panel recommends investment in mental health system to ease state foster care crisis

Nate Lampa/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

Texas continues to grapple with a number of children sleeping in Child Protective Services offices and hotels.

From Texas Standard:

Three experts hired by Texas to look into the state's ongoing problems with its foster care system have suggested greater investment in prevention as well as trauma-informed care for foster children. The panel's recommendations will now be considered by U.S. District Judge Janis Graham Jack, who's overseen the case for several years and who's holding a hearing Tuesday.

Dallas Morning News Austin Bureau chief Bob Garrett, tells Texas Standard his biggest takeaway from the expert panel's report was its suggestion that the state not only look to build big treatment centers and shelters, but to also take advantage of federal money for mental health and family services so kids don't have to be removed in the first place.

"And really go hard at this idea that you you're better off serving a family and keeping them out of the system because the system stinks," Garrett said.

Listen to the interview with Garrett in the audio player above, or read the transcript below, to learn more about how "therapeutic foster homes" are another alternative that could help the system better serve children in need.

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.

Texas Standard: What do these findings suggest, exactly? Are there specific things that this panel is calling for?

Bob Garrett: A lot of granular specifics. The big takeaway, I thought, was don't just look for big providers to build big treatment centers and shelters; take advantage of a lot of pots of federal money that are out there to improve mental health services for children and families and try to prevent kids from being removed in the first place, and really go go hard at this idea that you you're better off serving a family and keeping them out of the system because the system stinks.

These national experts, why were they brought in in the first place to take a closer look? What's the backstory on this panel?

Well, we've had kids sleeping in CPS [Child Protective Services] offices on and off for 15 years. But it really got bad in the last year or so. And so that was happening while the judge in the federal lawsuit was presiding over some improvements in workers' caseloads and things like that, and everything was unraveling because of this crisis. Workers were having to babysit these kids. It was then, in San Antonio, the new, further outsourcing of foster care services was being embarrassed, as this was the Republican legislators' cure-all for the system.

So basically, the plaintiffs' lawyers for the children recommended that they bring in three outside experts to take a look at the the problem of the kids without placements, and the state went along, although it did not agree that it would follow the recommendations.

These experts are emphasizing they are not recommending any increased development or use of congregated facilities in the state. But if you have kids sleeping in offices and hotels and other unlicensed placements, what is the alternative?

One of the state-of-the-art things for the most troubled children is to get not just normal foster parents, but get some that are called "therapeutic foster homes," trained. And that's additional training in how to deal with the traumas and help these children start to trust adults. There's also money available, in a law that President Trump signed in 2018, to build really high-quality residential treatment centers that are congregate-care facilities [and] they're nationally accredited and they have the entire array of services needed.

The judge's monitors continue to go to some places that do not reflect [due] credit on the field of providers of foster care. A lot of these providers are very dedicated people. But it continues to be kind of hair-raising to read their reports of going to these places, not just in Texas, but in other states – Michigan. We're sending kids to Michigan because we don't have placements in Texas.

There's a hearing today. Who's involved and what's at stake?

We've got a couple of things going on in this federal lawsuit today. One is that these expert panel people on the children without placements, presumably, will be questioned about their recommendations. And the judge may question the state and put the state on the spot of, Will you do this stuff? And then the monitors, the eyes and ears for the judge, are going to have their third progress report, so there's a lot to discuss.

Does the state have to comply with the recommendations made by this panel?

It simply said that it would cooperate in good faith. It stressed that they were non-binding recommendations. But you know, a lot of them involve just being smart about taking advantage of things that are out there that Texas hasn't taken advantage of, and trying to look at the whole system, and especially a mental health system, for children.

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Caroline Covington is Texas Standard's digital producer/reporter. She joined the team full time after finishing her master's in journalism at the UT J-School. She specializes in mental health reporting, and has a growing interest in data visualization. Before Texas Standard, Caroline was a freelancer for public radio, digital news outlets and podcasts, and produced a podcast pilot for Audible. Prior to journalism, she wrote and edited for marketing teams in the pharmaceutical and cosmetics industries. She has a bachelor's in biology from UC Santa Barbara and a master's in French Studies from NYU.
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