AUSTIN — A bill that would try to steer more Texas foster children to "cottage homes" won final House approval Monday, despite opposition from many child advocates.
Bill author Rep. Four Price, R-Amarillo, said cottage homes are "a good option for the state to have."
Under state regulations, they are places where 12 or fewer kids live, with adult caregivers who act as substitutes for parents on the premises at least half or more of the time.
Calling the bill unnecessary and unhelpful, though, were leaders of child welfare advocacy groups and a network of local nonprofits that recruit "court appointed special advocates" for foster children.
Rep. Four Price, R-Amarillo
Cottage homes, they noted, don’t take the high-needs children who have been forced to sleep in Child Protective Services offices because they lack suitable foster placements.
"Congregate care is something we should be moving away from," said Katherine Barillas of the Houston-based advocacy group One Voice Texas. In child welfare, there is broad agreement that children thrive most when placed with foster families, she and other advocates noted.
Of about 16,200 Texas children who as of February were in foster care, 816 were in "child care only" at general residential operations. The label means the youngsters don’t need treatment for serious emotional and behavioral disorders or chronic medical conditions.
The Department of Family and Protective Services, though, has said it doesn’t keep track of how many of the 816 are in cottage homes.
In some instances, cottage home operators care for CPS’ kids for free. According to the department, five of its contractors who run general residential operations don’t accept state pay, including Cal Farley’s Boys Ranch northwest of Amarillo.
Price, who has served for nearly seven years on the board of the Cal Farley’s Boys Ranch, said it’s not a conflict of interest to push the bill.
Though the nonprofit supports the legislation, "they’re not getting a penny of state money," he said.
"I don’t benefit. I’m not paid for my board membership," Price said.
Cal Farley’s and other cottage homes run by licensed general residential operations around the state have successfully worked with maltreated children who are deemed "basic" or "moderate" for purposes of reimbursing providers, he said.
"Some of them have obviously been placed multiple times in a traditional placement, and that’s not a great situation," he said.
Price said CPS should more frequently consider placing children in cottage homes.
"It’s appropriate, not in every case but in some cases," said Price, who in the past was the House’s top social services budget writer and this session heads the Public Health Committee.
Several child advocates, saying they hold Price in high regard, said it was painful to oppose his bill.
A federal judge has determined Texas’ foster care system is broken and ordered sweeping — and expensive — reforms. Meanwhile, a cascading failure to hire and retain child abuse investigators means they aren’t checking on endangered kids. The cost to fix both crises could surpass $1 billion over the next two years. During a tight budget year, that’s a tall order for Republican leaders loath to increase spending on social services.
"Representative Price is one of the finest legislators, hands down," said Madeline McClure, founder of Dallas-based TexProtects. "But this is one bill where we don’t think he has it quite right."
The bill "wouldn’t help the capacity crisis" because cottage homes "will only accept basic or moderate level children — the same level of care where the state has plenty of kinship and foster families," she said.
"If cottage homes would accept older, higher needs children, they would be of enormous help," McClure said.
To allay worries his bill could cause Texas to lose federal foster-care funds, Price changed it on the House floor Saturday to say that if the federal Administration for Children and Families certifies that would happen, CPS couldn’t implement his bill.
Price also mostly carved out children under 6. For very young children, the department could consider a cottage home placement, but "only if the department determines it is in the best interest of the child," and only if no relatives or close family friends who would be suitable caregivers are available. For older children, if no kinship caregiver is available, then the "least restrictive setting" would be a family foster home or a general residential operation that uses a cottage home model, the bill says.
Several organizations urged Price to exempt all children under 13.
Such children are "more likely to learn challenging behaviors in cottage homes," said Kate Murphy of the advocacy group Texans Care for Children.
In a class-action federal lawsuit the state is losing, U.S. District Judge Janis Graham Jack has said children under 13 shouldn’t be placed in cottage homes and other group care, she noted.
Price, though, said setting the cutoff age at 6 "struck a good balance."
Members sent bill to the Senate by a vote of 134-11. A companion bill by Sen. Brian Birdwell, R-Granbury, has passed the Senate. It is awaiting a hearing, though, from the House Human Services Committee.