Federal judge finds Texas has “broken” foster care system, says she’ll order changes
AUSTIN, TX – Long-term foster care in Texas is “broken” and routinely does grave harm to children already dealt a tough hand, a federal judge ruled Thursday.
U.S. District Judge Janis Graham Jack of Corpus Christi said the state violated the Constitution by keeping about 12,000 youngsters for years in an underfunded and poorly run system “where rape, abuse, psychotropic medication and instability are the norm.”
Defendants John Specia and his staff at the state Department of Family and Protective Services have “the best intentions, she wrote. ” But the system, despite 20 years of reports and attempted fixes, keeps harming the children it’s supposed to help”, the stinging opinion reads.
Jack, an appointee of former President Bill Clinton, ruled in favor of nine children who sued the state in 2011 on behalf of all Texas children in long-term foster care.
Their lawyers, who included members of the Dallas-based Haynes and Boone firm, said Texas’ foster care system forces thousands of youngsters to live in poorly supervised institutions. The department frequently moves the children from one place to another and often splits up siblings, plaintiffs said.
Jack agreed, saying Texas routinely violates the children’s 14th Amendment rights to be free from harm while in state custody.
Julie Moody, a spokeswoman for the protective-services department, said it’s disappointed with Jack’s ruling. The state has insisted that plaintiffs’ lawyers have ignored recent improvements that followed the Legislature’s sweeping changes to Child Protective Services in 2005, along with an overhaul of foster care two years later. They also repeatedly boosted the agency’s budget — Texas current spends $1.4 billion a year on Child Protective Services.
“Texas performs comparably with other states in this area, and has steadily improved,” she said.
While Texas fiercely contested the suit, officials didn’t immediately say whether they would appeal Jack’s ruling.
The case centers on children removed from their birth homes by Child Protective Services who then linger for at least a year, sometimes 18 months, in foster care. Because CPS and its contractors have been unable to reunite them with their birth families or find a lasting home with relatives or an adoptive parent, the youngsters are in limbo.
Even though judges work to try to avoid it, many children then enter CPS’ “permanent managing conservatorship.” At that point, the state often drops the ball because the law does not require that the children have their own lawyer and another adult advocating for them, plaintiffs argued – and Jack agreed.
She found that CPS has too few conservatorship caseworkers, so their huge caseloads cause them to fail to pay enough attention to their charges.
“Texas’ foster care system is broken, and it has been that way for decades,” Jack wrote. “It is broken for all stakeholders, including DFPS employees who are tasked with impossible workloads. Most importantly, though, it is broken for Texas’ [permanent managing conservatorship] children, who almost uniformly leave state custody more damaged than when they entered.”
Jack said that within 30 days, she would appoint a special master to develop a sweeping plan for improvements.
The cost to the state is uncertain but likely to be in the millions. CPS has authority to employ more than 9,200 people, though turnover is a chronic problem, as the judge noted.
Jack said she’ll ask the special master to recommend how many more CPS workers should be hired and how many more child-care licensing inspectors should be added.
She’s requiring each child in long-term care to have an attorney ad litem as well as a court-appointed special advocate.
The judge also said the special master will study “child-on-child abuse” at group homes and treatment centers. The master will push for the state to move children who do not have severe physical or behavioral impairments into the least restrictive settings possible.
CPS also would have to improve case files it keeps on the children – including annual photos, to help in identifying runaways. The state also will have to stop placing certain foster children in unsafe placements like “foster group homes that lack 24-hour awake-night supervision,” Jack said.
Marcia Robinson Lowry, the founder of New York-based Children’s Rights, which led the effort and has filed similar suits in more than a dozen states, called Jacks’ decision “stunning” and painstakingly researched.
“Texas certainly has one of the worse foster care systems in the country,” Lowry said.