National Advocates and Texas Attorneys File Federal Class Action Seeking Reform of Texas Child Welfare System

Citing longstanding and pervasive issues that have caused thousands of children in Texas foster care to spend their childhoods in poorly supervised institutions and repeatedly move from one far-flung place to another, today the national advocacy group Children’s Rights has joined the prominent Texas law firms Haynes and Boone LLP, Yetter Coleman, and Canales & Simonson in filing a class action in federal court seeking widespread reform on behalf of approximately 12,000 abused and neglected children in long-term foster care statewide.

The (PDF), known as M.D. v. Perry, charges Texas’s Department of Family and Protective Services (DFPS) with violating the constitutional rights of children who have been in foster care for at least a year by routinely failing to either return them safely to their families or find them safe, appropriate, and permanent new families — and therefore failing to meet its legal obligation to ensure the safety, permanency, and well-being of all children in its custody.

The current structure of Texas’s child welfare system gives caseworkers approximately one year, or a maximum of 18 months, to either successfully reunify children with their birth families or find them adoptive homes. If DFPS fails to find a permanent home for a child in foster care within that time, that child is then officially moved into the state’s “permanent managing conservatorship.” After entering this permanent foster care status, many children have little hope for stable, permanent families and instead are shuffled between a variety of foster and institutional placements that are poorly supervised by the state.

“Once children cross the line into permanent foster care, the state essentially gives up on their prospects for ever leaving state custody with permanent families of their own,” said Marcia Robinson Lowry, executive director of Children’s Rights. “Instead, thousands of Texas children have no hope for a decent childhood and are subjected to unconscionable damage while under the state’s protection. These children need the protection of the federal court.”

The state is still legally obligated to provide children in permanent foster care with appropriate care and services while in foster care and must continue to work to find permanent families for these children. Today’s complaint shows that DFPS does not fulfill this obligation to the thousands of children in permanent foster care.

“This class action lawsuit is the collective cry of Texas’s forgotten children, now demanding to be remembered,” says the complaint.

The lawsuit names 9 children as plaintiffs to represent the class. They range in age from nine to 16 and share a history of suffering in DFPS’s long-term foster care. They include:

“As Texans, we pride ourselves on our ability to take care of our own, especially our children. It is truly shameful how this state has neglected this vulnerable group of kids for as long as it has and operated a system with so little accountability,” said Barry F. McNeil, a Dallas-based partner with Haynes and Boone and co-counsel on the lawsuit. “We believe it is our responsibility to stand up and give these voiceless children an opportunity to be heard and protected.”

Pointing to evidence that DFPS and state officials have been aware of serious problems throughout the state-run child welfare system for many years without taking sufficient action to solve them, the child plaintiffs ask the U.S.District Court for the Southern District of Texas to enjoin the state from further violating their constitutional rights and order relief via broad reforms. Among the harms to children in Texas’s permanent foster care detailed in the complaint:

“DFPS has a legal obligation to protect the safety and well-being of our state’s children, and that is exactly what this campaign for reform sets out to do,” said Paul Yetter, managing partner at Yetter Coleman in Houston. “Our firm is proud to be a part of this effort on behalf of Texas’s forgotten children.”

The children’s complaint links these problems to DFPS’s long-standing deficiencies in its management and infrastructure:

Children’s Rights is joined in representing the plaintiffs in M.D. v. Perry by Dallas-based firm Haynes and Boone, Houston-based firm Yetter Coleman, and the firm of Canales & Simonson in Corpus Christi.

For more information about Children’s Rights campaign to reform the Texas child welfare system, and the full text of today’s complaint, please visit www.childrensrights.org.

Related Media

Texas harms foster children with inattention, shoddy system, lawsuit says (Dallas Morning News, March 29, 2011)

Suit filed for Texas’ ‘forgotten children’ (Houston Chronicle, March 29, 2011)

Lawsuit: Texas Failing Foster Children (Texas Tribune, March 29, 2011)