Texas Can’t Nix Federal Suit Over Foster Care

     CORPUS CHRISTI, Texas (CN) – A federal judge said she has jurisdiction to hear a class action that claims Texas causes “permanent harm” to the “forgotten children” in foster care.

     Representatives for nine children say Texas’ long-term foster care, known as Permanent Managing Conservatorship (PMC), fails the 12,000 children in its custody. The representatives filed an 89-page federal class action for injunctive and declaratory relief in March.
     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 goes into PMC, the complaint says.
     In PMC, children often move around, end up in substandard placements far from siblings and other family members, lack access to proper mental health care, experience further abuse and neglect, and “languish” in the system, according to the complaint.
     On behalf of the children in PMC, the class representatives sued Gov. Rick Perry, the executive commissioner of Texas’ Health and Human Services Commission, Thomas Suehs, and the commissioner of Texas’ Department of Family and Protective Services, Anne Heiligenstein, whom they claim “inflict further trauma on these children by maintaining a child welfare system in which these children’s constitutional rights and the entitlements guaranteed by state law are routinely denied.”
U.S. District Judge Janis Graham Jack certified the class on May 26 and squelched a motion to dismiss the class action on July 1.
     According to the judge’s latest order, the defendants challenged the class’s right to tackle its claims in federal court, “contending that this lawsuit ‘would effectively require the Court to takeover and administer Texas’ foster care system despite the fact that regular and competent oversight of Texas’ foster children has already been entrusted to the Texas district courts by the Texas Legislature.'”
     State officials called for Jack to dismiss the case based on the abstention doctrines established in the Supreme Court decisions in Younger v. Harris and Burford v. Sun Oil Co.
      Jack determined that the class action would neither interfere with nor duplicate the state proceedings that individual foster children go through.
      “This lawsuit seeks to improve the standards for all children in state foster care and protect foster children’s constitutional rights, seeking systemic changes that would improve the foster care system for all children,” according to the 30-page ruling. Jack also pointed out that “[s]uch a lawsuit would ultimately aid the ongoing state proceedings, not interfere with them.”
     “Moreover, the Court notes that the state reports focus upon the specifics of each child’s placement and whether his or her needs are being met; they do not address whether the child’s treatment in foster care satisfies constitutional demands, the central concern of this lawsuit,” Jack added.
     She also noted that the state opened itself up to government oversight when it accepted federal funds through the Social Security Act’s Title IV-E foster care program. “The voluntary submission to such federal oversight greatly lessens the force of any complaints regarding unwarranted federal intrusion on state sovereignty,” Jack wrote.
     Contrary to the state’s argument, the federal class action would not hamper Texas’ own attempts to make improvements, according to the ruling.

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