Federal Judge Asserts Texas Foster Care is ‘Broken,’ Must Be Fixed

Children ‘almost uniformly leave State custody more damaged than when they entered’

(Corpus Christi, TX) – In an exhaustive and much-anticipated 255-page decision, Senior U.S. District Judge Janis Graham Jack ruled in favor of plaintiff children in a federal class action lawsuit, declaring Texas must make targeted changes to its foster care system to improve thousands of young lives.

“Texas’s foster care system is broken, and it has been that way for decades,” Judge Jack wrote in a decision handed down yesterday. “It is broken for all stakeholders, including DFPS employees who are tasked with impossible workloads. Most importantly, though, it is broken for Texas’s PMC children, who almost uniformly leave State custody more damaged than when they entered.”

National advocacy organization Children’s Rights and Texas co-counsel Haynes and Boone, LLP and Yetter Coleman LLP brought M.D. v. Perry on behalf of 12,000 children in permanent foster care, or permanent managing conservatorship (PMC). The current structure of Texas child welfare gives caseworkers a maximum of 18 months to either reunify children with their birth families or find them adoptive homes before they enter PMC, a status unique to Texas, where kids have little hope for permanent families.

“This is a wake-up call to the state that it cannot continue to violate the rights of children,” said co-counsel Paul Yetter. “It’s time for Texas to take the needed steps now to make foster care safe, rather than fighting to justify a broken system.”

In her decision, Judge Jack stated Texas ignored years of reports “outlining problems and recommending solutions … All the while, Texas’s PMC children have been shuttled throughout a system where rape, abuse, psychotropic medication, and instability are the norm.” She also stated, “Texas has violated Plaintiffs’ Fourteenth Amendment right to be free from an unreasonable risk or harm,” and found the state’s Department of Family and Protective Services (DFPS) put children at risk because of:

High caseloads: Workers are burdened with caseloads that exceed professional and national standards and “DFPS has done nothing to reduce caseloads, knowing all the while that foster children are harmed as a result.”

Dangerous foster group homes: Children are frequently housed in placements that permit foster parents to serve up to 12 children under one roof with no additional safeguards, such as nighttime awake supervision, that other group living arrangements have. “Plaintiffs call foster group homes ‘A recipe for Disaster,’ and the court agrees … The record is full of physical abuse, sexual abuse, suicide attempts, and poor supervision at foster group homes.”

Inadequate licensing: The Department, through its Residential Child Care Licensing (RCCL) division, fails to properly oversee licensed facilities where children live and doesn’t adequately investigate allegations of abuse and neglect. “The Court is convinced that RCCL simply doesn’t work. It’s broken.”

Inadequate placement array: Texas lacks enough placement options throughout the state to ensure kids live in appropriate settings. “The Court did not need to read a volume of studies to figure out that placing children hundreds of miles from all that is familiar, separating siblings, housing children in facilities that are inappropriate for their needs, leaving children in facilities where they have been abused, and placing sexualized children in the same room as other children without proper oversight, all present substantial risk of serious harm.”

The ruling calls for the state to immediately stop placing children in permanent foster care in “unsafe placements, which include foster group homes that lack 24-hour awake-night supervision.”

It also states that within 30 days, the court will hold a hearing to select an “independent Special Master to help craft reforms and oversee their implementation.” The state will fund the position that the court believes “will ultimately save the state time and resources.” Within 180 days of selecting the “Special Master,” that person will present an “Implementation Plan to reform Texas’s foster care system.”

According to the decision, the goals of the “Implementation Plan” should include provisions such as: establishing and maintaining a 24-hour child abuse hotline; improving programs for young people who age out of foster care; hiring and maintaining enough caseworkers to ensure caseloads are manageable; tracking child-on-child abuse; and conducting a needs assessment to determine the types and geographic distribution of placements needed for kids.

“Once the reform plan is set, Texas will have a roadmap to improve care for thousands of vulnerable children,” said Sara Bartosz, lead counsel for Children’s Rights. “We will continue to fight on behalf of these kids, to ensure they ultimately receive the treatment they deserve.”