Senate Bill 6, passed unanimously by the Senate March 3, represents efforts to amend problems facing the state's Child Protective Services department. With the need for reform acknowledged under the dome, as the senate bill goes to the House, legislators are coming to terms with the implications of SB 6, for better and worse.
Spurred by headline-grabbing incidents of abuse and neglect, Gov. Rick Perry issued an executive order in July 2004, calling for systematic review and reform at CPS. This fell some three months after demands for a similar investigation of Adult Protective Services. With reform a priority at the Capitol, SB 6 and HB 6 were drafted to implement findings the Health and Human Services Commission discovered in their mandated examination of the agencies. While SB 6, centering on CPS, passed last week, HB 6, focused on APS reform, is pending in committee.
Drafted by Jane Nelson, R-Lewisville, SB 6's stated goals are reducing caseloads and administrative burdens, improving efficiency, overhauling training for caseworkers, and penalizing those who knowingly make false reports. While the aims are laudable, grumblings about privatization, financing, and other aspects of the legislation look to make for a lively discussion in the House.
Rep. Elliott Naishtat, D-Austin, chaired the Human Services committee in what he called the "Pete Laney Democratic era," and still has a seat at the dais. Involved with issues surrounding CPS and APS for his 14 years in the Capitol, Naishtat said he's pleased with aspects of the legislation. "Initially, there was talk about full-scale privatization of most of the CPS functions. We worked hard to eliminate the full-scale language and reduce the scope of the privatization effort." This resulted in both SB 6 and HB 6 requiring pilot studies on privatization in one county or H&HS region. "This is a victory for those of us who had these concerns," Naishtat continued. "There have been tremendous problems in two states that went ahead and privatized CPS Kansas and Florida. The services didn't improve, the cost went up."
"I'm always watching out for this buzzword, privatization," agreed Sen. Gonzalo Barrientos, D-Austin. "In some cases it might work, in other cases it doesn't." He cited Texas prison privatization as a cautionary tale. "Private companies said they could do it better and cheaper," he said, yet once companies began to develop their programs, "within two or three months, some of those same companies were coming back, asking for more money." He added that every time privatization is bandied about, "you're probably going to be losing some state employee jobs here in Austin." Yet a far graver concern was quality of care at CPS. "In some cases you might save money; in other cases, do we want to handle life and death issues on the cheap?"
The worries aren't limited to privatization. "I'm concerned about language in the bill that says 'subject to the availability of funds,'" said Naishtat, for it "often means that it ain't going to happen." He further lamented that the funding subject to appropriation is "mainly in the area of prevention," covering caseload reduction, services for kinship placements of children with relatives rather than foster care, and the creation of a child abuse and neglect prevention task force. "If we can prevent abuse and neglect of kids," he said, "kids aren't going to end up in the CPS system."
Naishtat was also apprehensive about increasing the penalty for false reporting of abuse and neglect to felony status. "This sounds good," he said, "but it might act as a deterrent, a disincentive to reporting abuse and neglect, because [citizens] might be afraid if their report doesn't get confirmed, they could be charged with a crime." And while hard-charging reform of CPS may be needed, cross-pollination between CPS and law enforcement might have unforeseen consequences. "I have a background in social work; I think it's important to work with families and children from a social-work perspective, more than a law-enforcement perspective, although I think there's certainly a need in many cases," Naishtat advised. "I'm concerned that we may end up focusing more on prosecuting parents rather than providing families with the resources and services they need to stay together, where appropriate."
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