A bill strengthening community-based care for foster children is headed for Gov. Greg Abbott’s desk.

Senate Bill 1896, sponsored by state Sen. Lois Kolkhorst, a Republican from Brenham who chairs the Senate Health and Human Services Committee, passed the Senate on April 27 on a unanimous vote. On May 24, it passed the House, again on a unanimous vote.

The Senate agreed to a Senate amendment on Friday, May 28, sending the bill to the governor.

The purpose of SB 1896 is to increase capacity, safety, quality of care and to better ensure the successful statewide expansion of Community-Based Care (CBC), giving local communities the flexibility to draw on local strengths and resources and find innovative ways to meet the individual needs of children and their families. CBC creates a system that allocates resources based on the specific needs of children and families and serves them in their homes and community.

The Texas Tech report previously commissioned by the Legislature found the implementation of CBC by the Department of Family and Protective Services and Children’s Protective Services has been “random, chaotic,” overly centralized and “lacking an overall implementation strategy.”

The report noted that implementation lacked appropriate transparency and accountability and stated that CBC should be evaluated by an independent entity. Agencies should not evaluate themselves; also, to maintain maximum objectivity for accountability purposes, SSCC performance should also be judged by an independent organization unaffiliated with DFPS.

Andrew Brown, the director of the Texas Public Policy Foundation Center for Families and Children, said he is optimistic Abbott will sign the bill.

“The Senate just concurred with the House amendments, just maybe about 30, 45 minutes ago. So it is going to the governor’s desk. So I would say that it has a great chance of passing,” Brown told Dallas Express on Friday, May 28. “He really hasn’t signaled either way on it. However, given that 1896 is designed to address many of the issues that have been highlighted in the foster care lawsuit and some of the compliance issues that the Department of Family Protective Services has been having, I would say that this is a bill that the governor will sign, given the need right now to comply with that lawsuit and to improve our foster care system, which is exactly what 1896 is designed to do.”

Brown said it’s the right bill at the right time.

“Really, it’s designed to make our foster care system more responsive to the needs of children and make the system itself safer,” he said. “It gives local communities greater responsibility over children who enter foster care from their communities. It allows those communities to provide services and support to those children and families that are uniquely tailored to their needs.”

Polls have shown a broad base of support for community-based care.

The Texas Public Policy Foundation found that to be true in a March 2020 survey and support for it increased from 62% to 76%, according to a 2021 poll, he said.

“And what was really interesting about that data was the primary areas that drove that increase are areas where the community-based model was already being implemented,” Brown said. “And so what that told us was Texans across the board like the community-based model of foster care because of its responsiveness to the needs of their unique communities. And then when they see it in action, they really like it. Their support goes up once they’ve seen it in action.”

He said it’s encouraging to see the Legislature understand and act on that. Texas is moving into a community-based model much more quickly and efficiently, Brown said, while learning lessons from the first four years of implementation.

It understands what’s been successful, what hasn’t worked out and is tweaking the system to leverage the successes and adjust the areas that did not pan out as intended.

“You know, you talk to any business owner and the way their business looks five years down the road, it’s very different from the way that it looked on paper because they’ve learned by doing and a successful business owner learns and makes changes based on all of their implementation,” he said. “That’s exactly what 1896 is doing. And I think it’s a powerful piece of legislation. It’s really going to help Texas turn the corner on our foster care crisis.”

He said the TPPF overlaid removals for neglect only with child poverty rates in the state and determined that a child living in one of the 25 poorest counties in Texas is statistically more likely to be removed from their family and placed into foster care due to an allegation of neglect than if a child living in one of the 25 wealthiest counties in Texas.

“So there is a sense to which poor families are disproportionately punished for being poor in this state,” Brown said. “So I think that drives a lot of what you’re seeing in terms of high numbers of removals into foster care. And high rates obviously do have to control for population because in the denser population areas, you have larger raw numbers of kids removed. But even when you control for that, you know, you can see some of these trends playing out.”

While the goal is to allow local communities to get closely involved in foster care, that doesn’t mean there will not be consistency in standards, he said.

“And when it comes to safety issues, those core things that ensure that we’re providing the safest place possible for children, you’ll see some consistency around the standards that the local providers are held to,” Brown said. “However, the way that the community-based care statute is structured in some of the amendments that 1896 makes to it, is it provides much greater flexibility for the local communities to innovate services for families and children that are tailored to the unique and diverse needs of their community.”

Brown submitted testimony to the Texas House Appropriations Subcommittee on the implementation and expansion of community-based care on Sept. 30.

He said early reports show “community-based care is doing exactly what it was designed to do” in four regions operating under this new structure. Child safety, placement stability and placement in the least restrictive setting all are showing gains.

“Currently, four regions of the state: Region 1 (Lubbock/Amarillo), Region 2 (Abilene/Wichita Falls), Region 3b (Fort Worth), and Region 8a (San Antonio/Bexar County), are operating under this new, localized mode. A little more than 6,000 children, roughly 12% of the Texas foster care population, are being served under community-based care,” he said.

“According to the most recent Rider 15 Report, released in March by the Department of Family and Protective Services (DFPS), 100% of children are safe in their placement, placement stability is meeting or exceeding goals, and more children are being placed within 50 miles of their removal address than prior to community-based care implementation,” Brown testified.

Our Community Our Kids in Fort Worth, a division of ACH Child and Family Services, is in the process of expanding CBC into Region 3b and as a result has seen positive outcomes for its children in foster care.

This includes an increase in foster home placement stability, new capacity for teens who need residential treatment, and a 36% increase in foster home capacity in rural areas. Region 3b comprises Erath, Hood, Johnson, Palo Pinto, Parker, Somervell and Tarrant counties.

SB 1896 calls for establishing an agency independent of but attached to DFPS called the Office of Community Based Care Transition. This agency would be tasked with among other things, developing a plan for CBC implementation across different regions of the state, evaluating CBC providers, measuring performance, and reporting outcomes.

Brown has long been dedicated to assisting children in need.

“Well, it started when I was in law school. Our law school had a child advocacy clinic that I got to be a part of and represented kids who were going to the foster care system,” he said. “And I really saw firsthand how harmful the system is to children and how often it fails families who are struggling with poverty and other very real, very hard issues. And that really ignited a passion in me to say we need to change the way the system operates.

“And I’ve been involved from multiple levels, whether it’s foster care, family advocacy to adoption work throughout my career and now at the Public Policy Foundation, I’m able to effect change at the legislative level, at the executive levels of the state.”

Brown, 36, lives in Austin with his wife and their two children.