The following editorial published in The Dallas Morning News on July 29:
All eyes turn to the foster care system in the aftermath of a tragedy. Calls for reform are widespread once people hear about problems with the system, but the insistence on change often dims once the spotlight shifts.
Between 2015 and 2017, popular desire to reform Texas’ foster care system reached new heights. A landmark ruling by U.S. District Judge Janis Graham Jack illuminated many problems with the system and mandated changes, and the state Legislature followed suit with legislation addressing problems with the state’s system for protecting children.
While significant progress has been made, we need to maintain our insistence that the system be improved as rollbacks to reform have already begun.
In her 2016 ruling, Jack required that the state update its computer-based case management system. This month, the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals inexplicably rejected this requirement.
This rejection is significant. The state’s current system, IMPACT, has been roundly criticized for being outdated and difficult to use. Jack determined that the system was simply too decentralized to be used efficiently.
IMPACT doesn’t keep all of a child’s records in one place, so caseworkers need to go digging to find important information or risk missing it entirely. For instance, information about a child’s history of abuse or neglect is kept in a completely separate database, so it’s possible for a caseworker to miss information about a child’s history of abuse and recommend the child be placed in a harmful situation.
In 2016, it was estimated that caseworkers spend 75% of their time doing administrative work, such as searching IMPACT for case records and only 25% of their time interacting with children.
Caseworkers are already overworked. A lot of issues contribute to this – low funding and hiring, high turnover and heavy caseloads – and working within a poorly equipped system only exacerbates this. Jack ruled that an improved system was an essential step in lessening the burden on caseworkers and providing better outcomes for kids.
To be fair, the state has made moves to modernize the IMPACT system in recent years, claiming that a new system would be abortively expensive and that it’s better to improve the existing software. But modest improvements do little in the face of a complex problem.
You can repaint a car with 500,000 miles on it as many times as you want, but at some point, it’s going to leave you stranded.
It’s imperative that the state prioritize the well-being of its children over the potential complexity of a difficult task. The problem will not go away if we kick the can down the road, and the software will only get more antiquated the longer we wait.
The 5th Circuit removed external pressure on the state of Texas to fix this problem, but the state can choose to reform without it.
In the aftermath of Jack’s ruling and other landmark improvements, as a society we felt the need to improve a system that is supposed to care for thousands of kids in Texas. The need hasn’t gone away, even if some of the immediate pressure for reform has dissipated. Our hope is that the state presses forward anyway. These children are precious and shouldn’t be left to the mercy of antiquated computer systems.