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Jaime Masters out, Stephanie Muth in as Gov. Greg Abbott’s pick to lead CPS

Having tried an outsider, Abbott picks a Texas social services veteran to lead protective services.

AUSTIN — Gov. Greg Abbott, ushering off stage a bureaucrat he recruited from another red state just three years ago, has turned to a veteran of Texas’ health care and nutrition safety-net programs to lead the state’s embattled Department of Family and Protective Services.

Starting on Jan. 2, Stephanie Muth will replace Jaime Masters as the department’s commissioner, Abbott announced late Monday.

Muth, 53, has been a private consultant since 2020, after a lengthy run as a senior level executive at the Health and Human Services Commission.

“As a recognized administrator and organizational leader, Stephanie will contribute her deep understanding of agency operations and increased accountability to strengthen the efforts of this critical agency,” Abbott said in a written statement.

Masters, the outgoing commissioner, has been under fire from lawmakers for what they consider a tardy rollout of a regional approach to further privatization of the state’s purchase of foster care services.

The new procurement model is known as “community-based care,” and Abbott stressed in his statement that “Stephanie will lead DFPS and help guide the agency as it continues rolling out Community-Based Care (CBC) services statewide.”

Until Muth starts, Kezeli “Kez” Wold, the head of Adult Protective Services, will be interim commissioner, Abbott said.

The Republican governor also announced that Casey Family Programs’ Texas director Anne Heiligenstein returns as senior adviser. In June, Heiligenstein, who ran the department for a time under former Gov. Rick Perry, was brought in to be the department’s executive deputy commissioner for 12 months. However, last month, Masters canceled the contract with Casey Family Programs and fired Julie Frank as her chief of staff. Frank, a former Abbott aide, had come over from the governor’s office in January.

“Children and families across Texas will benefit greatly from the expertise and deep understanding of child welfare that this new leadership team brings to DFPS,” Abbott said, referring to Muth, Heiligenstein and Wold.

In addition to speeding rollout of community-based care, Muth will be “furthering the agency’s compliance with the remedial orders in the foster care litigation,” Abbott said, referring to a decade-old federal lawsuit.

Community-based care

In May, Brenham Sen. Lois Kolkhorst, the Senate’s top child-welfare policy writer, complained that the department’s implementation of community-based care “has sputtered” so badly, she wondered if the state agency should be placed under a board.

Kolkhorst and fellow Republican Sen. Charles Perry of Lubbock noted that the new system, in which a single contractor takes charge of foster care placements and services in an entire region, was up and running only in a few places.

In the next year, it’s scheduled for adoption in Dallas, Collin and seven other counties in what’s called “Metroplex East,” though the 2021 dissolution of “Family Tapestry” in San Antonio, the only previously attempted rollout of community-based care in a major urban area, has caused some to doubt there will be qualified bidders.

A byproduct of statewide rollout would be major shrinkage of the payroll of CPS as thousands of “conservatorship caseworkers,” who assist foster children and handle their cases in court, switch from the state’s payroll to those of state-paid vendors.

The public spanking of the department by Kolkhorst and Perry came two months after a declaration by Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick that “if a conservatorship is needed to run the agency, then that is what needs to be done.”

Patrick asked Kolkhorst and a newly named panel on Child Protective Services to dig into “serious issues at the agency” and issue a report by Dec. 1.

Foster care woes

He was responding to news reports a day earlier about disturbing allegations that a staff member at a Bastrop County facility for girls who are victims of sex trafficking encouraged trades by residents of nude selfies for illicit drugs.

Masters, a health official whom Abbott hired away from county government in Kansas City, Mo., after she’d been deputy secretary of the Kansas Department for Children and Families, also drew criticism over the persistent failings of the state’s system of long-term foster care.

On her watch, the state, which was declared to have been running an unsafe system that violated children’s constitutional rights, witnessed another spiraling of the number of kids sleeping in CPS offices, churches, hotels and makeshift quarters because no suitable foster-care placement is available.

While the numbers have declined in recent months, U.S. District Judge Janis Graham Jack and lawyers for plaintiff children have voiced frustration that Masters’ department hasn’t more quickly adopted solutions proposed by a court-appointed panel of three child-welfare experts. Many involve expanding mental health services for troubled families and children.

CPS, the largest division in Masters’ department, also has been roiled by an Abbott directive last winter that it investigate families allowing their transgender children to undergo certain medical treatments as “child abuse,” based on a nonbinding opinion by Attorney General Ken Paxton. Some CPS workers have quit in protest.

Muth, 53, has no direct child welfare experience, though she worked at the Health and Human Services Commission when it oversaw the protective services department.

She has experience testifying before the Legislature, for which she once worked. At the sprawling commission, which oversees Medicaid, the Children’s Health Insurance Program, food stamps and state psychiatric hospitals and community-based mental health services, Muth has served as a deputy executive commissioner, state Medicaid director, the overseer of eligibility services and chief of staff to the executive commissioner.

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