Speaking Truth in Love

Southern Baptists influence orphan care reform in Texas

June 8th, 2017 / By: Bonnie Pritchett | TEXAN Correspondent / comments

Southern Baptists influence orphan care reform in Texas

AUSTIN—Southern Baptists’ history of caring for orphans made them key players in child welfare reform during the 85th session of the Texas Legislature. From authoring transformational legislation to advocating for its passage, Southern Baptists and their Christian allies worked across party lines to effect change for Texas children caught up in the child welfare system.

Before a federal judge demanded changes in Texas’s broken Child Welfare System, lawmakers and agency personnel had been seeking solutions. This session lawmakers hammered out legislation that will prompt significant restructuring of the Department of Family Protective Services, give financial relief to some foster parents and provide legal protection to faith-based foster and adoption agencies. The changes are desperately needed within the agency that has come under severe criticism for failing the children it is sworn to protect.

“You will cast thousands of votes this session. Few will involve life or death decisions,” Gov. Greg Abbott told legislators in his January State of the State address. “Your vote on CPS is one of them. Last year, more than 100 children died in our Child Protective System. You can vote to end that. We can reform the system so that no more children die in it.”

The death of children in Child Protective Services custody or still in parental custody but under observation is the worst of violations cited by a federal judge last year in a lawsuit brought against the state. Additional grievances include children spending nights in CPS offices for lack of available foster homes; caseworkers quitting under unbearable caseloads; and children aging out of the child welfare system, which often puts them on a path toward poverty and incarceration.

Abbott demonstrated his desire to retain caseworkers in January when he ordered an infusion of cash into the DFPS and gave 75 percent of all CPS employees a $12,000 a year raise.

Lawmakers then passed and Abbott signed bipartisan legislation making DFPS a stand-alone agency accountable directly to the governor. The agency currently operates under the Department of Health and Human Services.

Rep. James Frank, R-Wichita Falls, who authored the bill, said the law allows the governor and department leadership to cut through bureaucratic red tape and address critical issues expeditiously. His family recently adopted two grade-school-aged brothers giving him a personal investment in the system’s overhaul.

Frank, a member of a Southern Baptist Church, noted that the biggest changes in the system must come from within the department, and the decision to bring the agency out from under the auspices of a HHS can force and encourage that change.

A bill authored by Sen. Charles Schwertner, R-Georgetown, takes the role of foster care recruitment and training out of Austin and puts it in the hands of the communities where the foster children come from. According to the legislative analysis the law gives “greater authority and accountability to local communities to positively affect foster care children in their community.”

Decentralizing the system will follow the successful pattern of Tarrant County, which over the past three years has operated its own regionalized recruiting and training system called community-based care.

Fifty percent of children removed from their homes by CPS end up in the homes of a relative. Unlike foster families who take in the children of strangers and receive financial support from the state, kinship care families receive a one-time outlay of about $1,000. They will now receive a monthly stipend, less than the other foster families, to help defray expenses.

One reform measure that received pushback from democrats gives faith-based adoption and foster care agencies legal protection for their religiously-grounded policies that prohibit them from partnering with married same-sex couples or individuals or providing abortions or contraceptives to young girls in their care. Democrats opposed the bill, authored by Frank, because they said it discriminates against gays and lesbians.

Estimates indicate up to 25 percent of all Texas foster and adoption care agencies are faith-based. Frank and other supporters insisted the bill is essential for keeping those agencies in the system. Without them the already shallow pool of foster care families will continue to dry up.

Ironically, a bill encouraging faith-based entities to actively participate in the recruitment and support of foster care families unanimously passed the Senate (A record of House vote is not available.). The faith-based foster and adoption care protection law also protects those agencies the state is asking to more actively engage in the system.

And that is the best way churches and Christians can hold the state accountable in its care of orphans.

“Get involved in the system,” Frank told the TEXAN. “Few if any constituents ask their representatives about how Child Protective Services are doing. The church should ask its elected officials, ‘How are you doing taking care of the least of these?’ By and large most constituents ask about taxes and other things. You hold [legislators] accountable by asking about it.”

One of the faith-based organizations that will benefit from the protections is Texas Baptist Home for Children, which has a ministry affiliation with the Southern Baptists of Texas Convention. Families and churches interested in information on foster care and adoption can contact Texas Baptist Home by visiting tbhc.org or calling (972) 937-1321.