“I felt like I was being punished.”
That’s how Samantha, now 22, described her five years in Texas foster care.
She was removed from her home days before her 13th birthday, after reporting that her uncle was molesting her, she told Children’s Rights. Then she was moved through about 13 placements — including foster homes, psychiatric hospitals, group homes, emergency shelters and residential treatment centers — all hours from her mother and community, she said. In one group home, she complained of severe pain in her arm from being restrained, but staff refused to bring her to a hospital.
“I was telling them that it was broken and they said that if I had broken a bone, I would be screaming and the pain would be unbearable,” Samantha said. A couple months later, after she was moved to a new placement, a doctor finally reset and put a cast on her arm — it had fractured in three places. Samantha doesn’t remember anyone investigating the incident, or asking her questions about it. “I never knew if things were followed up on … caseworkers always changed,” explained Samantha. She recalls having about seven different caseworkers before aging out at 18.
“I was just feeling like I was being passed around to everybody,” she said.
She’s not alone.
Samantha is one of thousands of young people who have spent time in Texas’ beleaguered system of Permanent Managing Conservatorship (PMC). The Lone Star State gives caseworkers 12 to 18 months to either reunify children with their birth families or find them adoptive homes before they enter PMC, a status unique to Texas. Once in PMC, the attention paid to their cases drastically diminishes. There is often a sense that the clock stops ticking, and kids have little hope for stable families. Instead, far too many – like Samantha – literally grow up in state care, shuffled between a variety of foster and institutional placements, poorly supervised by the state.
“It’s not complicated. When children go into state custody, they should be safe. In Texas, that is clearly not the case, and it has been like this for decades,” said Paul Yetter, of the Houston-based law firm Yetter Coleman LLP. “Hearing the stories of these young people is heartbreaking, but they give us resolve to do whatever it takes to find a way to reform the system, so children in the future won’t be subject to the same abuse.”
In 2011, attorneys from Children’s Rights, Yetter Coleman LLP and Haynes and Boone LLP decided enough was enough, and filed a class action lawsuit — M.D. v. Perry — on behalf of 12,000 children languishing in PMC. In December 2014, the firms, along with A Better Childhood, brought the case to trial. Former foster children, caseworkers and child welfare experts testified about long-term, pervasive problems like over-whelming caseloads, too few foster homes and poor oversight of licensed providers hurting kids in the very system intended to protect them.
One former foster youth, Patricia, testified that she attempted to report sexual abuse in a foster home: “My caseworker at the time, she handed me a number and said, ‘if anything ever happens, call.’ I tried to call, I tried to report it and it was like, ‘okay, we’ll investigate it,’ and then nothing ever happened.”
Another former foster youth, D.J., testified that he had been through “35, 40” placements and 20 to 30 caseworkers since he entered Texas foster care at age 12, with six months being the longest he stayed in any one place. He said he was not prepared when he aged out: “I didn’t have a circle of support, I didn’t have ID, driver’s license, I didn’t have anything, nothing.”
Stories like these, along with disturbing evidence of dangerous structural failings, led to a watershed 255-page opinion concluding that Texas runs an unconstitutional system that is subjecting the very children it is charged with protecting to an unreasonable risk of harm.
“The reality is that DFPS has ignored 20 years’ of reports, outlining problems and recommending solutions. DFPS has also ignored professional standards,” Senior U.S. District Judge Janis Graham Jack wrote in her decision.
“Texas’s PMC children have been shuttled throughout a system where rape, abuse, psychotropic medication, and instability are the norm,” she wrote.
Dallas Morning News columnist Jaquielynn Floyd referred to Judge Jack’s decision as “the saddest legal document I have ever read.”
“To cite that ‘the system is broken’ is a grotesque under-statement,” Floyd wrote. “Failures in Texas’ overburdened, jury-rigged foster care apparatus would be intolerable if they happened to jail inmates or prisoners of war — and they are happening right now to thousands of helpless, friendless, utterly dependent children in this state.”
In her decision, Judge Jack highlighted how the Department of Family and Protective Services (DFPS) burdens workers with caseloads exceeding professional and national standards. She called out the state for frequently placing children in dangerous foster group homes that permit foster parents to serve up to 12 children of various ages without the additional safeguards that other group living arrangements have. Unrelated children of different ages and genders often sleep in the same room with no nighttime awake supervision. “The record is full of physical abuse, sexual abuse, suicide attempts, and poor supervision at foster group homes,” she wrote.
Judge Jack recounted the harrowing experience of D.I., one of the suit’s named plaintiffs, who at 8 years old was placed in a foster group home. Over the period of a month he was sexually abused at least three times by two teenage boys. The lone caregiver at the placement had no idea this was happening and was asleep during the assaults. During a psychological evaluation months later, D.I indicated that “lots of times” he thought about hurting and even killing himself.
Judge Jack also found that DFPS, through its Residential Child Care Licensing (RCCL) Division, fails to properly oversee facilities where children live and doesn’t adequately investigate allegations of abuse and neglect. “A typical investigation error rate for a child welfare system is 2% or 3%. RCCL’s is 75%,” she wrote. “This is staggering, and it means that many abused children … go untreated and could be left in abusive placements.”
In addition, Judge Jack found that 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,” she wrote.
Despite the overwhelming evidence that children are being hurt, Texas has continued to appeal the ruling, even as its foster care system is in turmoil. Kids are sleeping in DFPS offices because there are not enough homes, child abuse investigators are resigning and Commissioner John Specia — the agency’s seventh commissioner since 2004 — announced he is leaving. And young people continue to speak out about the atrocities they endured in state care.
Recently, one young woman, Cheyenne, 19, told Children’s Rights that when she entered foster care she was split up from her seven younger brothers and sisters — some of whom, she said, were abused in care. “They would come to family visits with cigarette burns on their hands, busted lips, bruises all up and down their legs, knees all cut up,” she said of two of her brothers.
“I did have hopes that we would be treated better,” she said. “Our house wasn’t the greatest, but it definitely wasn’t as bad as foster care was. And I think all of us went into care hoping that we were going to be put in these amazing families that loved us and that wasn’t the case.”
With Judge Jack’s landmark decision, now there is hope that Texas foster care will be temporary, stable and safe and that future generations will have better experiences in care than Cheyenne, her siblings and countless others.
Judge Jack ordered the state to immediately stop putting children in “unsafe placements, which include foster group homes that lack 24 hour awake-night supervision.”
She also selected a pair of independent “Special Masters” — child welfare veteran Kevin Ryan and nationally known court-appointed master Francis McGovern — to recommend a plan to reform Texas foster care and oversee its implementation. The plan should include the following goals: 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.
Amy Zachmeyer, a former caseworker, now working for the Texas State Employees Union, described the ruling — and the remedies ordered by Judge Jack — as “monumental.”
“There is a spotlight on Texas CPS now. The problems have come to light and they cannot be ignored,” she said.