Federal Judge Blasts Failures of Texas Foster Care System

CORPUS CHRISTI, Texas (CN) — Texas will likely be fined for violating orders meant to reform its foster care system, a federal judge said Friday, adding she believes a grocery chain does a better job tracking produce than Texas does of children in its care.

Texas has yet to revoke the license of a treatment center for foster children that it has cited 145 times for breaking rules and even gave it a pass on minimum staffing guidelines after a 15-year-old girl died there in February.

Staff at the Prairie Harbor, a residential treatment center in Willis, Texas, did not immediately call 911 when the teenager identified in court records as K.C. collapsed in the early morning of Feb. 9. Following management’s rules, they first contacted their supervisor. And they waited 37 minutes before calling 911, court records state.

The 5-foot-3, 300-pound teenager died when a blood clot came loose from a vein in her leg and moved to her lungs. She had complained to staff of leg pain five times, yet none of them filed a report about it, a Texas Department of Family Protective Services official testified Thursday.

“This is a child who had every sort of risk factor: hypertension, birth control pills, obesity and diabetes. There is no evidence she was treated,” said Senior U.S. District Judge Janis Graham Jack, a Bill Clinton appointee.

Testimony in a two-day hearing revealed a troubling disconnect between the agencies that oversee the 10,300 children in the state’s long-term care, DFPS and the Health and Human Services Commission.

While DFPS is removing its foster children from Prairie Harbor, the HHSC has yet to revoke its license. The commission even recently granted Prairie Harbor a variance so it could have less staff per child than the state’s minimum requirements.

“Why on Earth would you facilitate somewhere where a child died, with 145 citations, to have less staff per child? What on Earth are you thinking?” Jack asked Jean Shaw, HHSC’s associate commissioner for childcare regulations.

“I think, your honor, we recognized the challenges our operations are facing during the pandemic and we try to put conditions on there to mitigate some of the risk when they’re not going to be able to meet ratio – ” Shaw said before Jack cut her off.

“I don’t think you are thinking at all,” the judge said.

Jack also questioned why the state let Prairie Harbor’s owners open a new residential treatment center for foster kids called the Landing at Corpus Christi.

“This is stunning to me,” she said.

The exasperation is nothing new for Jack. She ordered the state last November to pay daily fines of $50,000 – it paid $150,000 – for violating a court order requiring caretakers to maintain 24-hour supervision of children in group foster homes.­

Attorneys for nine children brought a class action in March 2011 on behalf of kids in the state’s long-term foster care, or “permanent managing conservatorship,” children who become state wards if a permanent home cannot be found for them after the state takes them from abusive or neglectful families.

After a 2014 bench trial, Jack issued a scathing order a year later finding “rape, abuse, psychotropic medication, and instability are the norm” for children in Texas’ “broken” and understaffed foster care system.

She appointed two special masters to oversee reforms she ordered, most of which were upheld by the Fifth Circuit last year.

Lead class counsel Paul Yetter, of the Houston firm Yetter Coleman, brought a contempt motion on July 2, alleging the state had not addressed “glaring safety risks” in its foster care system.

Under Jack’s order, before licensing inspectors make visits to residential centers they are supposed to review the reports of child abuse or neglect lodged against in the past five years and document they have reviewed it in the state’s computer system.

But Shaw said the Health and Human Services Commission only started doing this on Monday.

“The court’s remedial order has been in effect for over a year,” Yetter said, “affirmed by Fifth Circuit and your group HHSC is obligated to follow it. You just told court you did not implement technology to ensure your group is complying until five days ago?”

 “Correct,” Shaw said.

“Why did it take so long?” Jack asked.

“We have to work within our resources,” Shaw replied.

“This is stunning,” Jack said. “This is just an entity that does not care what they are doing and does not care to follow the court’s order.”

Though Jack has ordered DFPS staff to make unannounced visits to group homes at night, to certify they have caretakers awake supervising children, many times the agency’s list of children does not match those at the homes, Jack said Friday.

A girl was kept on a home’s list for seven weeks after she hung herself there, the judge said.  

“I’ll tell you this, HEB has a better tracking of their produce than DFPS does of children in their care,” she said, referring to the San Antonio-based supermarket chain.

Texas Department of Family Services Commissioner Jaime Masters also testified in the hearing. She agreed with Yetter it is concerning the state has only revoked the license of one youth residential center in the past 10 years, and said she was going to meet with HHSC Commissioner Cecile Young next week to discuss the problems cited by the special masters.

“It’s just good to hear somebody’s concerned,” said Jack.

Masters, who was appointed by Republican Governor Greg Abbott in December 2019, is the department’s fourth commissioner in the last 10 years. In Friday’s hearing, Jack urged her not to quit and Yetter commended her “refreshing attitude toward reform.”

But Yetter said Texas is still fighting reforms with the litigation approaching its 10th year.

In a July 24 opposition to Yetter’s contempt motion, state attorneys wrote, “Implementation of lasting change requires two to four years and is best accomplished in iterative phases.”

Yetter said in Friday’s videoconference hearing that after decades of noncompliance, Texas is running a “system that continues to hurt and endanger thousands of children.”

“It is high time for these children to become a priority No. 1 for the state of Texas,” he said.

Jack gave Yetter a month to prepare findings of fact for her contempt order.

“I may begin some fines now for things that are just outrageous,” she said.

But she said if she slaps the Department of Family and Protective Services with any contempt order, she will give it 30 days to get in line and hold a compliance hearing.

“It may not result in any sanctions,” she said.

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