Early into his tenure as governor, Greg Abbott said he was committed to overhauling the state’s struggling Department of Family and Protective Services, which oversees the foster care system. He was particularly focused on reducing child deaths as a result of abuse and neglect. From 2010 to 2014, 144 children died despite the fact that CPS was investigating claims of abuse in those cases. Back in 2015, Abbott’s office committed an extra $40 million to child welfare services.
Yet, also in 2015, a federal judge in Corpus Christi – in an order more than 250 pages long – ruled that long-term foster care in the state was unconstitutional. Putting it bluntly, she called it “broken.”
In that December 2015 decision, the Corpus Christi judge said DFPS’ foster care system violated the 14th Amendment, which gives people the right to be free from harm while in state custody. The right to be free from “rape, abuse, and psychotropic medication and instability.” Issues that Janis Graham Jack said had become the norm.
Jack appointed Special Masters who spent most of 2016 coming up with recommendations for how to improve the state’s foster care system.
While other states normally settle these kinds of class action lawsuits and work with the courts to improve foster care, the state of Texas has fought Jack’s ruling tooth and nail. Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton has challenged all of the court-appointed Special Masters’ recommendations and says Texas has already been working to improve the foster care system on its own.
In the lead-up to the 85th legislative session, Abbott and members of the Texas House and Senate took steps to try to improve the situation at the state’s child welfare agency. They approved over $140 million in emergency funding to meet Whitman’s request to hire over 800 new staff members and give frontline workers a raise. (Granted, an obscure Texas law on merit pay meant that about a third of those workers wouldn’t see those raises immediately.)
Lawmakers have also been taking other steps to improve Child Protective Services and foster care. The day before Abbott’s State of the State Address, a bipartisan working group in the Texas House called for big changes at DFPS. They included making the DFPS a standalone agency.
Right now the agency falls under the Texas Health and Human Services Commission. In the press conference, state representatives said it was time to change the status quo at DFPS and that they would be introducing several bills to reform the agency in the coming days. Another piece of legislation would attempt to create monthly stipends for kinship placements – putting children under the care of family members or close friends to family – within the foster care system.
Clearly, there are steps being taken at the state level and within the courts to improve the foster care system in Texas. To better understand the challenges facing foster care in Texas, we must first look at how children have fared in Texas' foster care system.
Richard De Jesus is a dedicated foster parent. In the last seven years, he and his wife, Yolanda, have provided a home and therapeutic setting to more than 60 kids. But each of the kids he takes care of experienced some kind of trauma.
“One had to be put into a juvenile detention, the other one had to come from psychiatric hospitals and treatment facilities to endure what she’s been through,” De Jesus says. “The other one used to be a [homeless 4-year-old], she was living under a bridge where she was used to panhandle for her parents’ drug habit. So you see the kind of children that we’re getting.”
All of the kids in the foster care system have experienced some kind of abuse and neglect – that’s the baseline. But Child Protective Services says high-needs kids, like the ones De Jesus cares for, can be hard to place in foster homes – let alone, permanent, adoptive homes. They require specialized treatment and resources.
According to Bob Garrett, with the Dallas Morning News, the state doesn’t have much of either – the legacy of two decades of Texas underfunding CPS.
“Garrett’s been covering the state’s foster care system for years. He says Republicans continued this bare-bones funding. The state now spends less than half of what states spend on foster care on average – even though the Texas agency’s funding has increased by 85 percent since 2006.
Besides money, over the past 20 years, DFPS’ recruiting methods have shifted. The state used to recruit and train 90 percent of foster families, while private child placement agencies handled the other 10 percent.
As of today, Garrett says the ratios have basically flipped. According to CPS, 95 percent of placement are handled by private child placement agencies.
“And then we started having deaths of kids in poorly run child placing agencies’ homes in the 2006, 2008, time frame,” Garrett says.
These deaths prompted lawmakers to try to improve the system. But changes came slowly, says Marcia Robinson Lowry, executive director of A Better Childhood.
“Whether children get into a good foster home or not is a matter of serendipity basically. Some children do, and an awful lot of children do not,” Lowry says.
Lowry filed a class action lawsuit against the state in 2011. The plaintiffs were kids stuck in “permanent managing conservatorship.” That’s when kids haven’t been adopted or reunited with their families after 12 to 18 months. They’re stuck in limbo.
Lowry had sued states over their foster care systems before. She says Texas didn’t measure up.
“Texas is one of the worst systems I have ever seen,” Lowry says.
On any given day – 30,000 Texas kids are in the Texas foster care system. And CPS says there are not enough caseworkers to cover that many kids. Caseworkers also don’t make that much money. Although the Texas legislature did approve emergency funding at the end of 2016 – starting pay used to be $34,000 per year. The work is stressful and the turnover rate is high.
Will Francis used to be a CPS caseworker. Now he’s the Government Relations Director of the National Association of Social Workers/Texas Chapter.
“I think I had between 50 and 60 cases and it was right around that first-year mark,” Francis says. “That, in the scheme of things, is way too many. I think I’ve heard definitely anecdotal stories of other caseworkers that have had a lot more.”
He says the Child Welfare League of America recommends a caseload of no more than 12 to 15 kids. But when you’re talking about 50 to 60 cases…
“You cannot give individualized case work, when you have that many kids,” Francis says.
Francis says many caseworkers quit after a year or two.
In short, Texas has a hard time placing kids dealing with trauma, a shortage of caseworkers, a dicey placement system, and the state is huge – which creates other logistical problems.
However, some have hope. Camille Gilliam, director of permanency at Child Protective Services, says she knows the agency is in a tough spot but she doesn’t think CPS is beyond repair.
“We don’t see the system in Texas has broken,” Gilliam says. “There is no system that wouldn’t benefit from improvement, and we recognized that long before the lawsuit even began.”
CPS – like child advocates – hope legislators can provide solutions to these lingering problems. And, if not, they’re working on solutions of their own. But what usually gets lost in the legal wrangling and the politics are the voices of foster kids themselves.