Federal Monitors Report Children in Texas Foster Care Remain at Serious Risk

Contact: Camilla Jenkins, cjenkins@childrensrights.org

(June 16, 2020 – Austin TX) – After ten months of investigation, a comprehensive Monitors’ Report has concluded that the Texas child welfare system continues to expose children in permanent foster care to the risk of serious harm. The monitors’ assessment, released this week, comes several years after the Fifth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals ruled unanimously that deficiencies in the system “pose a significant safety risk for foster care children,” and laid out an improvement plan intended to address the system’s failures.

The case, M.D. v. Abbott, was brought nearly ten years ago by Children’s Rights and Texas co-counsel Haynes and Boone, LLP and Yetter Coleman LLP on behalf of 12,000 children in permanent foster care (referred to as permanent managing conservatorship, or PMC). In December 2015, U.S. District Judge Janis Graham Jack ordered the state to fix its foster care system, finding that:

“Texas’s foster care system is broken, and it has been that way for decades. It is broken for all stakeholders, including Texas Department of Family and Protective Services (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.” In her decision, Judge Jack stated Texas ignored years of calls for reforms. “All the while, Texas’s PMC children have been shuttled throughout a system where rape, abuse, psychotropic medication, and instability are the norm.”

The report, 363-pages long with numerous attachments, represents ten months of investigation, analysis, interviews and unannounced site visits on the part of court-appointed federal monitors Kevin Ryan and Deborah Fowler. They describe in painful detail a system that remains broken; a system that is negligent, noncompliant, unresponsive, inefficient, ineffective and dangerous for children.

“Our No. 1 objective in filing this lawsuit was to force the state to keep the children safe. Instead, what we see in the very first major report by the Monitors is continuing unsafe conditions. Children are being hurt, children are dying in state care, and they’re crying out — making reports and being ignored,” said Paul Yetter, a partner with Yetter Coleman and lead trial lawyer for the plaintiffs. “Judging from the report the system has not improved at all, and it’s not even clear that the state’s trying to improve.”

“This is a state that is resisting a court order. It has been found to be violating the Constitution and too many children in state custody are being hurt. That doesn’t need to happen. Judge Jack has ordered the Defendants to fix the system. She has given them the ways to do that. They have resisted these orders for no good reason for far too long. It’s time to come together and stop this abuse for the safety and well-being of the children of Texas,” said Sandy Santana, executive director of Children’s Rights.

The Monitors found that the unit inside the Texas DFPS responsible for looking into the abuse of children in care inappropriately downgraded 33% of abuse complaints from investigation to no investigation. As of April 5, the unit had a backlog of more than 500 instances when calls to an abuse hotline remained unresolved for 45 or more days. Thousands of callers to the hotline gave up after waiting for someone to answer their calls.

The report reveals that 11 children in state care died between July 31, 2019, and April 30, 2020 — three of them under questionable circumstances that raise serious concerns about the care and supervision provided by DFPS:

K.C. was living in a residential treatment center when she died of pulmonary thromboembolism due to deep venous thrombosis. She had been complaining of leg pain for months but did not receive medical attention. The RTC staff waited for thirty-seven minutes to call 911 after K.C. began to experience a medical emergency.

A.B. In the month before A.B.’s death, which remains under investigation and is suspicious for child abuse, A.B.’s injuries sparked multiple referrals to state officials alleging physical abuse. Those referrals led to two investigations for abuse and neglect, neither of which caused DFPS to remove the child from the placement.

G. Fourteen-year-old C.G. hanged herself in the bathroom of a shelter where she was placed by DFPS following her discharge from a psychiatric hospital on March 4, 2020. C.G.’s seven-year passage through foster care was marked by increasing psychological distress and harm.

Key Findings

The Monitors’ Report details a range of systemic failures that every day puts kids at risk:

Excessive caseloads. Caseworker caseloads were to have been reduced to 14 – 16 cases per worker. But approximately 50% of workers are being assigned over-burdensome caseloads well beyond that limit. This is inexcusable. It’s a deliberate abdication of the state’s primary responsibility to keep kids safe.

Sexual abuse tracking. The state is not tracking children who have been the victims of sexual abuse in their homes or after entering the system, or children who are themselves a risk to other children because they are sexually aggressive. The lack of documentation means officials cannot make appropriate placement decisions and assure adequate safety oversight by caregivers.

Licensing violations. The monitors found that there are many foster care agencies and facilities with long histories and high rates of licensing violations or substantiated events of abuse of children in care. This puts kids at risk.

Sanctioning lax providers. Monitors identified numerous providers whose rates of abuse of children in care far exceeded the statewide average. These providers pose a serious danger to kids. Yet, the state makes minimal use of licensing and contract remedies to obtain acceptable performance. Significantly, the state did not revoke a single license over a five year period of time though dangerous facilities existed and were being utilized to house kids.

Screening for abuse of children in care. Monitors found that many of the reports of abuse of children in care are ignored by the state even though they include factual allegations that deserve investigation. These precarious conditions allow for maltreatment in care to fall between the cracks and permits dangerous caregivers to continue to receive kids into their care.

Awake night staff. Last fall, the state was found in contempt and fined for its failure to assure the presence of awake night staff at foster care homes or facilities with more than 6 children. Unannounced inspections have found unacceptable performance at certain placements such as awake night staff sleeping on the job or being drawn away from their posts such that the children are left for periods without supervision.

Child fatalities. Eleven children in state care have died between July 31, 2019, and April 30, 2020. The monitors reviewed the children’s case records, including healthcare records, and investigative records. Three children’s deaths raise serious concerns about the care and supervision provided by DFPS.

Poor data collection. Monitors have encountered a set of data management systems supposedly created to support the state’s foster care system that are fragmented, lacking in functionality and incomplete. Monitors were forced to use time-intensive data validation techniques to measure the state’s progress. The data systems pose a major obstacle to both daily management of system operations and durable systemic reform.

To access the full Monitors’ Report: https://www.childrensrights.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/06/Texas-child-welfare-monitors-report-June-2020.pdf

To read a summary Road map of the Report: https://www.childrensrights.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/06/2020.06.15-Final-Summary.pdf

To read Combined case Examples from the Report: https://www.childrensrights.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/06/2020.06.15-Case-Examples-from-Appendices.pdf


About Children’s Rights: Every day, children are harmed in America’s broken child welfare, juvenile justice, education, and healthcare systems. Through relentless strategic advocacy and legal action, we hold governments accountable for keeping kids safe and healthy. Children’s Rights, a national non-profit organization, has made a lasting impact for hundreds of thousands of vulnerable children. For more information, please visit www.childrensrights.org.