A surge of Texas foster kids with mental or emotional problems -- potentially like the 17-year-old homeless runway accused in a killing that shook the University of Texas campus -- could create a $40 million budget shortfall by the end of next year, a top official said Wednesday.
Department of Family and Protective Services Commissioner John Specia detailed the would-be spending woes at a much-watched Texas Senate health committee hearing. But top Republicans suggested the answer may be spending existing funding more efficiently, rather than pumping in new money.
"We have too many preventable child fatalities," Specia said. "Every failure hurts and must be scrutinized so we can learn."
Foster care in Texas has become a hot topic amid an increasing number of children entering the system and a rise in youngster deaths and cases of abuse and neglect.
In December, a federal judge ruled that the state's foster care system is so broken that it often leaves children in long-term care worse than when they entered. Two experts known as "special masters" were appointed to make improvements as the state appeals that decision.
The hearing also came amid the case of Meechaiel Criner, who has been charged with murder in the slaying of Haruka Weiser, a University of Texas dance student from Oregon whose body was found in a creek on the school's Austin campus on April 5. Criner was removed from his mother's house at age 2 after he and his siblings were left alone in a home with no running water. Since then, he's been placed with relatives and in foster care.
Criner's name came up briefly during Wednesday's hearing, but Specia, who is stepping down next month, declined to comment beyond saying he's not sure the media "got it all right" when reporting on Criner's medical history.
Criner's uncle said his nephew was bullied throughout his childhood and has the mental capacity of a 10-year-old. Criner's attorney, Ariel Payan, said the defense is still investigating any possible mental conditions.
"He's very young," Payan said. "He's confused about what's going on."
Texas has around 30,000 children in state care, though about 40 percent of those are in "kinship placements," which usually means living with relatives.
Committee Chairman Charles Schwertner said that while inroads into repairing "this beleaguered system" have been made, "obviously a great deal still remains to be done."
Specia said more foster care children are becoming harder to find permanent homes for because they have serious medical conditions or demonstrate mental, behavioral or emotional problems. He said the ranks of such youngsters grew to nearly 7 percent of all children in state care last year.
That has forced Texas to sign costly, short-term care agreements with psychiatric hospitals. Specia said those expenditures and other foster care costs -- as well as providing day care services to keep other children out of foster care -- had created a $20 million budget shortfall that could double by the end of the 2016-2017 budget cycle.
Amid some pushback from Republican senators, Specia noted that the GOP-controlled Legislature has added hundreds of millions of dollars to his agency in recent years. But he said that much of it went to hiring more case workers, who often quit because of overwhelming caseloads.
Sen. Charles Perry said it was funding for case workers, not agency coffers, that mattered: "We've got plenty of money in the system but a lot of that money stays in Austin."
"A lot of it stays with hypothetical and ivory tower ideas about what might be a better program," said Perry, a Lubbock Republican. "I don't think we need more ideas."