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Federal judge orders Texas to speed up reforms to ailing foster care system

The judge lamented that every Legislature and Texas governor going back to George W. Bush in the mid-1990s has made improving the state's foster care system a priority, yet the same problems persist.

CORPUS CHRISTI, Texas (CN) — A federal judge Tuesday lit into Texas officials for failing to implement her ordered reforms of the state’s foster care system and dragging their feet on an IT system to track children in state custody.

Senior U.S. District Judge Janis Graham Jack threatened to slap Texas with a contempt order for the third time in a class action approaching its 11th year due to delays of the state’s Department of Family and Protective Services and Health and Human Services Commission in complying with her orders to overhaul its foster care system to protect the around 10,000 children in its long-term care, technically called its “permanent management conservatorship.”

Jack lamented that every Legislature and every Texas governor going back to George W. Bush in the mid-1990s has made improving its foster care system a priority and allocated funds and commissioned studies that revealed the same list of problems.

“We’re talking 30 years ago, the same list of problems that’s today," she said. "And now they’re under mandate from a federal court and have resisted for 10 years. And still it looks like we’re just going from bad to worse. It is very discouraging. There are some bright spots. But this continued unconstitutional and unsafe treatment of these children is getting to everybody that’s deeply involved in this case.”

Lead class counsel Paul Yetter of the Houston firm Yetter Coleman summed up the key issues facing DFPS at the end of a grueling five-hour video status conference: “You have two huge problems: the placement crisis and the caseworker crisis.”

“Yes,” replied Erica Banuelos, the agency’s field director after describing how around 40% of its caseworkers have 18 or more children they oversee, not the 14 to 17 children per caseworker limit it agreed to in an injunction.

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 monitors to keep her apprised of reforms and their investigations have revealed a shocking lack of stability for some children once they enter the system after the state takes custody of them from parents determined by courts to be abusive or neglectful.

Jack said Tuesday that one 14-year-old girl who entered the system in 2010 was placed in 42 different foster homes and residential treatment centers, one of which had its license revoked and another two that had their licenses revoked and reopened under different names.

The teen has been through 10 psychiatric hospitalizations and is now living in Tennessee, where she is having serious behavioral problems despite being prescribed psychotropic drugs.

Jack noted DFPS had also placed the teen in several unlicensed placements, a growing problem for the agency. Over the last two years, Texas lost more than 1,600 beds for foster children, as several facilities closed after they were placed on heightened monitoring probation due to violations of the state’s minimum standards for care of wards.

In 2021, more than 500 children spent at least one night in an unlicensed state-run placement – caseworker offices, hotels and other settings – and DFPS sent another 99 to out-of-state facilities, according to reports by the court monitors and a panel of three experts appointed for the case.

The case record is rife with gut-wrenching reports: One 15-year-old girl ran away from the hotel room where she was housed. When she turned up she said she wanted to get a Plan B birth-control pill because she had sex with a hotel clerk in one of the hotel rooms.

After refusing to go to bed, an 8-year-old girl in an unlicensed setting spit on DFPS staff and repeatedly banged her head against a wall. The staff called 911 and requested an ambulance after she began biting her arms and legs.

Police responded and the girl said she missed her brother, who was in a hospital after CPS had put him there. She finally calmed down when a police officer read her a story.

Judith Meltzer, president of the Center for the Study of Social Policy, who has worked with New Jersey, Arizona and other states in reforming their foster care systems, is one of three independent experts tapped by Judge Jack to make recommendations for Texas to reduce the number of children put in unlicensed settings.

“When we looked at numbers of children in these unlicensed placements…what’s different from other states, the problem has gone on for a long time, there are many children and they are staying for a long time,” Meltzer said in the status conference. “Other states have put a lot of resources when the problem first erupted. Other states have a few children here or there for a short time. But it hasn’t become institutionalized.”

The trio of experts recommended Texas stop sending children to out-of-state facilities, which costs it an average of $44,000 per child per year, and spend that money on bolstering the mental health services provided for state wards and their biological families.

“Services and supports are key, and individualized ones, but nothing beats having a family,” said expert panelist Ann Stanley, managing director of Casey Family Programs. “A state-supported permanent family can have a greater impact than any services. Sometimes states overlook sending children back to their biological families, which many times have changed drastically. It takes a lot of work but when it does happen that’s when we see the real healing begin with their trauma.”

Judge Jack asked DFPS Commissioner Jaime Masters if the agency had a system in place yet to keep track of where all its foster children have been placed.

“I believe IT may still be working on that,” Masters replied.

“Oh for God’s sake,” snapped Jack. “I don’t understand the incompetence."

Later in the conference, Masters had an update: “IT is scheduled to go live with the fix in July 2022.”

“Then do you think we’ll know where the children are?” Jack asked.

“Yes I hope so," Masters replied.

 "That would be a new twist," Jack said. "Sorry for acting so angry but it’s because I am angry.”

The agencies’ recordkeeping is lacking on other fronts, Jack said, noting when she was preparing her final remedial order in the case she learned the DFPS and Health and Human Services Commission, which is in charge of licensing residential treatment centers, have different computer systems that are not linked and youths’ medical and educational records are in paper form and transferred with them from placement to placement.

Children who have been repeatedly moved often don’t have these records, Jack said.

She also criticized DFPS for the low rate, 19%, of its long-term foster children who have received Covid-19 vaccines. But agency officials said many teenage wards have refused to get the shots. Jack gave them until Friday to issue a report on how many exactly have refused.

She also gave the agencies 90 days to produce a plan to improve mental health services for foster children and their families.

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