New family and child welfare commissioner foreshadows change as agency plans to outsource case management

Members of the Department of Family and Protective Services Council in Austin in March. (Jordan Vonderhaar For The Texas Tribune, Jordan Vonderhaar For The Texas Tribune)

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The new leader of Texas’ protective services agency hinted at changes Friday that the agency will have to make as it continues transitioning toward a new way of managing foster children’s cases.

Department of Family and Protective Services Commissioner Stephanie Muth, who began her tenure about a month ago, told lawmakers writing a new two-year state budget that the agency will have different needs as it moves into the new system of outsourcing case management services to nonprofits.

Implementation of the new approach, called community-based care, began about six years ago but is still not fully in place. It was adopted in 2017 and is meant to keep foster children closer to home while they’re in state care. It is currently used only in parts of three of the agency’s 11 regional service areas, and there are plans to introduce it to more areas during the next two-year state budget cycle, according to a map shared during Friday’s meeting.

The change will likely require fewer in-house case workers. It will also require a different agency mindset, Muth said at Friday’s Senate Finance Committee hearing.

[How a 12-year-old federal lawsuit turned a judge into Texas’ foster care czar]

“We’re in two worlds,” Muth said. “We have the legacy world, we have the CBC world. We know how to operate the legacy world — that’s our comfort zone. But as you look at moving to community-based care, it’s very different skillsets that we need as an agency.”

Muth said that means thinking more about managing contracts with third parties and less about staffers managing cases.

“You have to have contractual expertise, you have to have financial expertise and we need to start building that into our DNA so that we are equally comfortable operating in a CBC world as we are in a legacy world,” she said.

Muth’s comments came as the agency laid out its budget requests for the next biennium, the two-year period that the state budget covers. It was the first of many meetings that will happen in the coming months. The budget hearing arrived as DFPS remains gripped in a lawsuit that has already cost millions while the agency keeps trying to implement changes in how it cares for kids ordered by a federal judge six years ago.

While DFPS plans to expand community-based care, it appears it will continue at a slow pace. There’s a goal to have half of the state’s geographic regions using that model by the end of fiscal year 2023. But that will still cover only about one-third of the population needing care, Muth said.

George Cannata, who oversees the DFPS transitioning office, told lawmakers it could take six more years to roll out the program, which has not yet been implemented in some of the state’s major urban areas, including Houston.

Sen. Charles Perry, R-Lubbock, asked Cannata why it would take that long.

“I’m not mad at you, I’m not upset with you — I need to fully understand the complexities that you’ve put to pencil and said, ‘It’s going to be six years,’” Perry said. “I just need to fully understand why because that doesn’t make sense to me now.”

Sen. Lois Kolkhorst, R-Brenham, noted that full rollout of the program was initially estimated for the early 2030s.

“I appreciate your admission that we probably have not refocused the agency to become more of a contractual agency,” Kolkhorst said. “You can be retrained. Doesn’t mean we’re getting rid of everybody at DFPS. It’s a different approach.”

Among other requests Muth made to lawmakers during a presentation Friday were retention bonuses to help triage an exodus of employees. That was in addition to proposed raises currently included in the Senate’s current draft budget. DFPS also wants to fund master investigators who would help with a backlog of inquiries of neglect and abuse.

The agency’s turnover among entry-level investigators is at an all-time high rate, exceeding 60%, Muth said.

“The high level of turnover — there’s really like a hole in the bucket,” Muth explained in response to a question of the issue’s impact. “It’s a drain on the capacity overall that you have available in your system when you’re constantly training and deploying new workers.”

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