Mental health pilot program for Texas foster kids underway

A new pilot program led by Gov. Greg Abbott’s office aims to provide specialized care and services for 500 of the most emotionally traumatized foster children in Texas.

The governor’s criminal justice division and the state’s Department of Family and Protective Services announced Wednesday they are planning to spend $8 million on a program for foster kids who are considered the most difficult to find permanent homes for. The two offices are focused on children who are victims of crime, admitted to inpatient psychiatric medical hospitals, and who have been admitted to at least two residential treatment centers in the past year. Officials say the goal of the program is to help children stay longer in their foster care homes.

Abbott said it’s important that Texas children under the state’s watch are “freed from an unacceptable cycle of crisis.”

“By better coordinating the care of our highest needs children in the foster care system, we will begin to unwind the abuse and trauma they have endured,” Abbott said in a news release. “I am confident that this new partnership will help advance meaningful and stable reforms to Texas’ current foster care system and help provide these children the future that they deserve.”

While there are 1,000 kids who have been identified as high risk, officials say they are focused on providing a robust amount of services for half of them in the program with hopes to grow the program if all goes well.

The program announcement comes as state leaders and legislators continue searching for long-term solutions for Child Protective Services and the foster care program. Among the plans: approving $150 million in state and federal funding to help the struggling agency and a push from Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick for the Department of Family and Protective Services to lean on religious families as prospective foster caretakers. With the increased funding, CPS and foster care will be issues in the upcoming legislative session, particularly as state legislators monitor how the money is spent and if the agency is meeting its goals.

For the upcoming pilot program, department officials say they will have to go through a request-for-proposal process to find the four organizations that will lead the initiative. Officials hope to get the program going by late spring or early summer of next year. Urban areas with larger foster care populations will probably be the focus as the program gets underway, with larger organizations having a potential advantage. The program has a two-year funding commitment.

DFPS Commissioner Hank Whitman said in an email statement that he appreciates “the governor’s decisive action to address the needs of our kids in crisis.”

“This grant will eliminate bureaucratic hurdles and keep foster kids out of CPS offices,” Whitman said.

Greg Hansch, public policy director for the Texas chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, said in an emailed statement that the pilot program could be an important step as foster children often end up without enough services to address their medical needs and trauma.

“These children need highly effective, coordinated services to keep them stable in their placements and to increase the likelihood of long-term wellness,” Hansch said. “We look forward to receiving more details about this promising partnership initiative between DFPS and the office of the governor.”