Texas legislators from both chambers unanimously passed bills on Wednesday that would change how the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services cares for vulnerable children.
The simultaneous debates in both chambers came as advocates have pushed for months for lawmakers to take drastic measures to fix the state’s broken child welfare system. Gov. Greg Abbott announced the issue as one of four emergency items during his State of the State address in January.
While the Senate debate drew no fireworks, over in the House, a proposed amendment to one of the bills that would have excluded undocumented people from accessing state funds aimed at helping some families caring for abused or neglected children prompted more than an hour of tense exchanges.
"If we’re starting like this, what the hell is the rest of the session going to be like?" asked state Rep. Rafael Anchia, a Dallas Democrat, at one point.
House members ultimately passed House Bill 4 with a vote of 145-0 to allow monthly payments for relatives caring for children in their families who have been abused. The chamber also passed House Bill 5, which would make the Department of Family and Protective Services a standalone agency, with a vote of 144-0.
“Today the House showed that improving child protection is among our highest priorities,” House Speaker Joe Straus said in a statement. “We have taken a couple of very important steps toward providing better protection and care for children in terrible circumstances, with more to come in the weeks ahead."
Meanwhile, the Senate voted 31-0 on Senate Bill 11, a far-reaching bill from the upper chamber.
The Senate Health and Human Services Committee voted to send SB 11 for a floor vote last week. State Sen. Charles Schwertner, a Georgetown Republican and chairman of the Senate Finance Committee’s Workgroup on Child Protection, is the bill’s lead author.
The bill would create a so-called community based care program in which the Department contracts with local non-profit organizations to handle casework. Other provisions include a pilot program for non-profit organizations to handle behavioral health care for children, requiring managed care organizations be notified of a child’s placement change within 24 hours and requiring children under conservatorship to have medical exams within three days of entering into the system. The bill would also require the Department to retain abuse and neglect records for longer periods of time.
“Today’s actions by the House and Senate are a significant first step toward reforming the the child welfare system and creating a culture that gives every child a chance to not only survive, but thrive in Texas," Gov. Greg Abbott said in a statement.
The day started off fairly smoothly in the House with the passage of HB 5 from state Rep. James Frank, R-Wichita Falls. Frank said the goal of HB 5 was to help the Department of Family and Protective Services become "one of the best run, best performing child welfare agencies in the country."
"This bill is intended to provide laser like focus to the management of Child Protective Services," Frank said.
But the swiftness of HB 5's unanimous passage was soon overshadowed by a proposed amendment to the next bill on the House calendar, HB 4, from Rep. Mark Keough, R-The Woodlands.
The bill would allow the state to fund monthly payments to relatives caring for children in their families who have been neglected or abused. Keough proposed barring undocumented families from receiving those kinship care payments.
Keough said the proposed program in the bill did not have enough funding to handle undocumented families.
"Why would we create an entitlement for people who are here illegally in our country?" Keough said.
Many House members described being “blindsided” by Keough’s amendment, and his decision to bring up the thorny issue of immigration into the debate over a measure aimed at saving neglected and abused children. Several Democrats called the amendment discriminatory and racist.
On the House floor, Anchia told Keough that the amendment was "absolutely offensive" and "trying to conflate children in desperate need with lawbreakers." He expressed frustration at the House starting off its first floor debate of the session with an amendment that "feels like really racist, anti-Hispanic stuff."
The amendment also drew criticism from some House Republicans.
"I feel like crying today, I really do,” said State Rep. Byron Cook, R-Corsicana. “And then I think about this and the reality of the fact is nothing good is going to come out of this amendment. It's not likely that it will hold up, [that ] it will be Constitutional."
Cook added later: “This is the first big bill and this is how we're going to start?"
State Rep. Gene Wu, D-Houston, attempted to defuse the debate by proposing an amendment to Keough's amendment that would allow undocumented families to receive kinship payments if they signed a sworn affidavit about their household income and property.
"My intent is to find a middle ground on something that has been presented," Wu said.
Wu pointed out that Keough's amendment, if passed as originally written, would potentially jeopardize federal funding. But Wu's amendment drew pushback from his fellow House Democrats.
"I don't think you can find a middle ground to hatred and I don't think you can find a middle ground to racism," state Rep. Roland Gutierrez, D- San Antonio told Wu.
Keough said he approved of Wu’s tweak to his amendment and so the House approved it.
But just as the House was preparing to finally vote on Keough’s amendment, Keough withdrew it. He told members right before doing so that he was "not a racist."
Later in the Capitol hallway, Keough told reporters that he understands, in the heat of debate, people may " say things that maybe they wish they wouldn’t have said."
"Yes I want to work with people, yes I want to work with my compadres, I mean, I do. But I want to take care of the kids and I want to make sure the children are taken care of,” Keough said. He added that he believed the state should only provide funding to people that are in the country legally.
Across the rotunda in the Senate, there was less drama.
After about two hours of discussion, lawmakers unanimously approved SB 11 from Schwertner, who said the measure made significant changes to the struggling Department of Family and Protective Services, including addressing “a large number” of a federal judge's 2015 findings in a class-action lawsuit against the long-term foster care system. State legislators have struggled in recent months over how to ward off further court intrusion into Texas' child welfare system. A special masters report from November with 50-plus recommendations drew lukewarm response from Republican legislators who have insisted that the state can fix the issues without court oversight.
“This is not a Republican/Democrat issue, this is a state of Texas, a future of the state of Texas, issue,” Schwertner said.
State Sen. Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa, a McAllen Democrat, said the legislation represents a new approach to the agency that oversees child welfare and foster care services in the state.
"Session after session they ask for millions of dollars, and we give them millions of dollars, and yet the results are the same,” Hinojosa said. "The band-aid approach has not worked, we continue to see the same problems over and over and over again.”
Julian Aguilar, Morgan Smith and Patrick Svitek contributed to this report.
This article originally appeared in the Texas Tribune.