(CN) – Two Fifth Circuit judges who found last year that Texas failed to protect children in its foster care system from sexual and physical abuse agreed with the state Monday that a new computer system to centralize all children’s records, and more effectively track abuse, would be too expensive.
Texas has resisted reforms ordered by Senior U.S. District Judge Janis Graham Jack after she found in December 2015 the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services had ignored 20 years of reports pointing to the need for more caseworkers to fix the state’s “broken” foster care system.
The problems persisted even after the class action, filed in 2011, brought attention to them and state officials promised to implement reforms.
According to the case record, in fiscal year 2017, 38 children died in DFPS custody, 554 children spent two or more consecutive nights in hotels or government office buildings due to a lack of licensed foster homes, and 352 DFPS caseworkers quit.
Jack wrote that “rape, abuse, psychotropic medication and instability are the norm” in the Texas foster system, which now oversees around 12,000 youths, and children “almost uniformly leave state custody more damaged than when they entered.”
She issued an injunction ordering Texas to create a computer system containing all foster children’s medical, school, court, mental health and caseworker history records, finding it particularly egregious that DFPS was not tracking child-on-child abuse in foster homes.
The judge also ordered Texas to limit caseloads to 14 to 17 children per caseworker after two special masters she appointed for the case determined the average caseworker has time to manage 14 children in long-term foster care.
Texas appealed to the Fifth Circuit after rejecting all 56 recommendations the special masters made to improve its care of foster children.
Last October, a divided three-judge panel of the New Orleans-based appellate court agreed with Jack that Texas had been deliberately indifferent to the risk of physical and sexual abuse for children in licensed foster homes, but scrapped the caseworker cap and remanded the case to Jack to modify her injunction.
In striking down the cap, U.S. Circuit Judge Edith Brown Clement, a George W. Bush appointee, wrote for the majority, “While caseload caps strike at the heart of the workload problem, we agree with the state that they are too blunt a remedy for a complex problem.”
Texas took issue Jack’s new injunction, claiming she had reinstated vacated parts of it and again appealed to the Fifth Circuit in November 2018.
At a hearing in March, Texas Assistant Solicitor General Joseph “Jody” Hughes said setting up a centralized database for foster children’s records was not feasible because it would cost tens of millions of dollars.
Attorney Paul Yetter with the Houston firm Yetter Coleman, lead counsel for the children named as plaintiffs in the class action, said in the March hearing that Tennessee, New Jersey and Washington, D.C. all had implemented such databases for their foster systems.
Joined by U.S. Circuit Judge Jerry Smith, a Ronald Reagan appointee, Clement sided with Texas on Monday.
Though Clement and Smith had previously agreed with the challengers that a new DFPS computer system would address the caseworker shortage and disorganization issues that underlie the foster systems’ problems, they made a stunning reversal Monday.