Texas Rejects Foster-Care Reform Recommendations

CORPUS CHRISTI, Texas (CN) – Texas objected this week to dozens of recommendations court-appointed masters made to overhaul its troubled foster-care system, arguing the proposed reforms require funding that only the Legislature can authorize.

There are around 12,000 kids in the state’s long-term foster care or “permanent managing conservatorship.” After 12 to 18 months, if the state has taken a child from an abusive or neglectful family and has not returned the child to the family or found a new permanent home, the child becomes a ward of the state.

U.S. District Judge Janis Graham Jack in 2013 certified a class action in which nine current or former Texas foster children sued Gov. Greg Abbott, the commissioner of Texas Department of Family and Protective Services, DFPS, and the director of Texas’ Health and Human Services Commission, alleging violations of 14th Amendment due-process rights to adequate care and a safe, secure, and suitable placement while in state custody.

Jack held a bench trial in December 2014 and issued a 260-page ruling a year later that blasted Texas for running an understaffed foster-care system where “rape, abuse, psychotropic medication, and instability are the norm.”

She also found that instances of child-on-child sexual abuse are not documented and some children who age out of the state’s custody are unprepared for independent living, as they don’t know how to answer a phone, cook a meal, fill out a job application, or drive to work.

Jack agreed that Texas is violating the 14th Amendment rights of its foster kids and issued an injunction, ordering the state to track child-on-child abuse and stop placing kids in homes without 24-hour supervision.

She appointed two “special masters” – Kevin Ryan, the former commissioner of New Jersey’s child welfare agency, and Duke University law professor Francis McGovern, who has experience as a court-appointed reformer of state institutions – to oversee the DFPS and guide it in implementing numerous court-ordered reforms.

Ryan and McGovern released 56 recommendations on Nov. 4. Chief among them were for DFPS to require monthly face-to-face meetings between kids and caseworkers, to create a centralized database for all kids’ case files, and to ensure that all foster homes have phones and DFPS hotline numbers posted so kids can report abuse.

They also advised the department to do annual medical exams of all foster kids and to place kids who are victims of sexual abuse in “single-child homes.”

To prepare kids to be released from the state’s care when they turn 18, the masters recommended that Texas provide driver’s education classes for them, and work with their ad litem attorneys to get their criminal records expunged or sealed.

They further recommended that Texas ensure foster kids who are aging out of the state’s custody have copies of their birth certificates, safe and stable housing arrangements, and email accounts so they can get copies of their records.

To combat worker turnover that has plagued the department, Ryan and McGovern advised it to assign no more than 17 kids to one caseworker and implement a mentorship program for new hires by seasoned caseworkers.

The department knows it will need more staff to comply with the masters’ recommendations.

DFPS Commissioner Henry “Hank” Whitman asked Gov. Abbott this week for $144.5 million to begin hiring 800 additional staff members, the Houston Chronicle reported.

The department also handles child-protective cases where parents are accused of abusing or neglecting their kids. The masters’ report states that they want Texas to implement the recommended policy changes within two to three months “following the court’s order.”

Plaintiffs’ attorney Paul Yetter with Yetter Coleman in Houston said in an email the masters are referring to an upcoming hearing in which Judge Jack will order the remedies that Texas must implement.

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton rejected the masters’ recommendations as “vague” in a brief filed on Monday.

“The proposed remedies in the recommendations are overbroad insofar as they are not narrowly tailored to redress violations of the constitutional duty owed to a child in foster care, but instead seek to implement what the special masters deem best practices, for which there is no constitutional duty,” the brief states.

The brief criticizes Ryan and McGovern for recommending policy changes that DFPS has already made and advising that Texas cap the number of foster kids each caseworker handles at 17.

“There is no proof or finding that measuring by caseloads instead of workloads achieves results more in line with constitutional standards,” the filing states.

Texas filed an unsuccessful motion to stay Jack’s order in January of this year, in which it stated the judge’s appointment of the special masters “encroaches upon terrain that is rightfully in the province of the legislature and would commit this court to an open-ended oversight of a complex foster care system.”

Paxton revisited the state-sovereignty argument in Monday’s brief, writing that although Gov. Abbott, DFPS Commissioner Whitman and Health and Human Services Director Chris Traylor are named defendants, they don’t have authority to authorize state funding to implement the reforms or to hire more caseworkers.

“To the extent the recommendations, if and as ordered, call for action requiring the passage of legislation, the appropriation of funds, or other measures outside of defendants’ control, they are improper and cannot be enforced against the defendants,” the brief states.[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row]