As I headed into the Texas Union for the first session of the 2016 Texas Tribune Festival I experienced simultaneous feelings of anticipation and dread. My feet dragged slower and slower as I walked into the Santa Rita Room for the session on “Fixing Foster Care.” Foster care, adoption, and how children interact with the court system have been of interest to me for a long time. I had become interested in the system from a young age from talking to a friend about being adopted, and listening to my mother on the phone with a parent whose child had been removed through her work with our local church.
This interest stayed with me, and in 2012 I found myself interning with the Office of the Attorney General for the District of Columbia, in their Child Protective Services division. I was working with two attorneys who represented social workers in the district when they had to go to court, most often to justify the removal of a child, or the termination of a parent’s parental rights. Over and over I heard social workers and lawyers talk about how the state of foster care in our country was broken, that there weren’t enough foster homes available, and not enough social workers to oversee the kids who’d come to their attention. CPS was still reeling from the Banita Jacks case from a few years prior, where lack of oversight from several agencies failed and a woman murdered her four daughters.
This was a particularly macabre example of total system failure, and the kids involved weren’t just abused, malnourished, removed from school, or shunted into the criminal justice system. They were dead. Here in Texas, a federal judge announced last December that “Texas has violated the constitutional rights of foster children by exposing them to an unreasonable risk of harm” and assigned a special master, to be paid for by the state, to oversee the implementation of several changes to CPS. 
In 2014 I was trained and sworn in to serve as a Court Appointed Special Advocate (CASA) for Collin County, Texas. Once again I was surrounded by social workers and attorneys, but I was now expected to have an informed opinion about the particular case to which I was assigned. My weekends were spent on home visits and my breaks at work filled with voicemails and faxes trying to track down medical and school records and schedule meetings with service providers. I now had first-hand experience trying to stay on top of just one CPS case with two kids in the same foster home, unlike most CPS workers in Austin, who in 2014 had a daily caseload of about 20. It was an increasingly frustrating task, as the CPS caseworker and Assistant District Attorney assigned to the case were switched multiple times, doctors stopped accepting the STAR Health insurance, and the foster parents vacillated between cooperation and reluctance.
All of this turned in my mind as I entered the session on September 24 with trepidation. My experience made me much more concerned about the importance of foster care reform than I was four years ago when I first dipped my toes into this pool, and while what I heard from the panel did not completely put my mind at rest, it did seem like steps in the right direction are being taken. Representatives Richard Peña Raymond and Stephanie Klick both confirmed that the child welfare system will be a main focus of the upcoming Texas Legislative session, echoing comments Texas House Speaker Joe Straus has made. Rep. Raymond even went as far as to say that “two years from next May, the system will be better,” though without going into how that could be measured or accomplished. Indeed, when Madeline McClure of TexProtects brought up the discrepancy in compensation for entry level social workers in choosing to work for CPS versus going to work for a local hospital, and that the difference in pay could be driving quality social workers away from CPS, neither representative would concede that perhaps CPS caseworkers should be paid more.
Areas most panelists agreed needed improvement included reducing the caseloads of Family Preservation caseworkers, where the majority of deaths in CPS-involved families occur, potentially due to lack of oversight; reducing turnover within CPS in part by supporting caseworkers with secondary PTSD and other job related stresses; and shifting focus from reactionary fixes to children’s welfare to preventative programs like the Nurse-Family Partnership. There is also a generally recognized lack of evidence-based program evaluation for the myriad of programs and volunteer interventions that young people within the child welfare system encounter.
In terms of gathering that evidence, there is hope. Here at the LBJ School, Cynthia Osborne and the Child Family Research Partnership (CFRP) are currently working on the Child Outcomes and Volunteer Effectiveness Evaluation (COVE) that will investigate the effectiveness of the Texas CASA program to ensure CASA advocates are meeting their charge to advocate for the “child’s best interests until they reach a safe, permanent home.”
I left the session with a sense that while there are many dedicated individuals and groups working to patch holes in the proverbial child welfare ship, the real test will be what the Legislature puts together in the coming session. In a perfect world kids would grow up safely and without incident in the homes they were born into, but in the absence of utopia, the state will continue to attempt to fill the gap. While we wait for the session though, the children in the gap are growing up and aging out of a broken system.
Edited by: Joel Dishman
 Walters, Edgar, and Emily Ramshaw. “Judge: Foster Care System Violates Children’s Rights.” The Texas Tribune, December 17, 2015. https://www.texastribune.org/2015/12/17/judge-foster-care-system-violates-childrens-rights/.
 “CPS: Average Daily Caseload.” Web documents – Undefined. Accessed October 2, 2016. https://www.dfps.state.tx.us/About_DFPS/Data_and_Statistics/child_protective_services/cps-chart_Average_Daily_Caseload.asp#textversion.
 “DFPS – STAR Health – A Guide to Medical Services at CPS.” Web documents – Undefined. Accessed October 3, 2016. https://www.dfps.state.tx.us/Child_Protection/Medical_Services/guide-star.asp.
 Svitek, Patrick. “Children, Vulnerable Should Be Focus of Next Session, Straus Says.” The Texas Tribune, September 13, 2016. https://www.texastribune.org/2016/09/13/straus-says-next-session-will-focus-helping-childr/.
 “Child Welfare | Child and Family Outcomes | CFRP Child and Family Research Partnership at LBJ.” Accessed October 3, 2016. http://childandfamilyresearch.org/research/cw-cfo/.
 “Become A CASA Volunteer.” Texas CASA. Accessed October 3, 2016. http://texascasa.org/volunteer/.