CORPUS CHRISTI (CN) – A federal class action claims Texas makes little effort to find permanent homes for children in the state’s long-term orphan program, moving them frequently with no regard for their well-being, and placing them in foster and “residential treatment homes” with substandard care.
Guardians of nine children sued on behalf of the 12,000 children in the state’s long-term foster care or “Permanent Managing Conservatorship” (PMC).
Each year thousands of children are taken into custody of the state’s Department of Family and Protective Services (DFPS) after being neglected or abused in their homes, the complaint states.
“This custody, called ‘substitute care’ in Texas, is intended to be temporary,
lasting only until a child can either safely be returned home or placed with another permanent family,” the complaint states.
“The state is required to make efforts to achieve one of these outcomes within the first year that a child is in custody. If the state is not able to achieve reunification or other permanency within that time, the child is placed in the state’s PMC.
“Once children enter the state’s PMC, DFPS makes little effort to find them permanent homes. Instead, these children remain in state custody for many years, and many are abused while in the state’s custody.”
In May 2010, 500 children had been in Texas state custody for more than 10 years, according to the complaint.
Children languish in state care even though, as of August 2010, nearly three-quarters of children in the state’s PMC were legally free for adoption, the class says. “Each year, far too many children leave the state’s PMC only when they turn eighteen and ‘age out,'” the class claims.
The state also fails in its obligation to find its wards the “least restrictive, most family-like placements appropriate to their needs,” but instead moves them from place to place, the class says.
“As of 2009, children in the state’s PMC who had been in DFPS custody for more than three years had been in an average of eleven placements,” according to the complaint.
The state also places many kids in its Permanent Managing Conservatorship in foster homes with 7 to 12 children without professional staff to care for them, or in residential treatment centers that can be harmful to the orphans, the complaint states.
The class says these shortfalls in the Texas foster care system are caused by several factors, including a shortage of DFPS staffers, DFPS case workers failing to implement “appropriate permanency plans for children,” the state’s failure to assure there is “an adequate range of placements and services” to meet the children’s needs, and the state’s lax oversight of foster homes where kids are placed.
Texas has known that its foster-care program needed help since it received a failing grade in a 2002 federal audit, the class says.
“In 2008, the federal government fined Texas $4 million for not seeing to it that children in state custody received the number of monthly visits by conservatorship caseworkers that are required by federal child welfare performance standards,” the class says.
“Children in Texas’s PMC will continue to be harmed, and their constitutional rights will continue to be violated, unless and until fundamental changes are made to this damaging system,” the class claims. “Defendants are knowingly failing to discharge their constitutional and statutory obligations to ensure the safety, permanency, and well-being of the children in the Plaintiff Class, exposing them instead to harm and risk of harm through the very system that is charged with protecting them.”
The 89-page complaint names as defendants Gov. Rick Perry, the head of Texas’ Health and Human Services Commission Thomas Suehs, and the commissioner of Texas’ Department of Family and Protective Services Anne Heiligenstein.
The class seeks a permanent injunction requiring the DFPS to establish an “administrative accountability structure” to address each orphan’s needs for a permanent residence, placement in the most “family-like” settings, and mental health services suited to their needs.
They also want DFPS ordered to create “special experts panels” to review the cases of all class members who have had more than four placements, or have been in the state’s care long-term care for more than 2 years.
Finally, the class seeks an order prohibiting the state from placing children in foster homes, foster group homes, emergency shelters, group residential operations or residential treatment centers that do not meet standards set by the Child Welfare League of America.
Lead counsel is J.A. “Tony” Canales of Corpus Christi.