In The Courtroom

“Permanent” foster care. Sounds pretty dismal, right? Especially when the goal is to give abused and neglected children the happy, productive lives they deserve.

The state of Texas has a long record of failing to protect the children in the custody of its Department of
Family and Protective Services (DFPS), subscribing to practices which virtually ensure that more than a thousand young people age out of foster care every year with no hope of a family in sight.

The current DFPS structure gives caseworkers a maximum of 18 months to safely reunify kids with their birth families or find them adoptive homes. After that they enter long-term foster care, a status known as “permanent managing conservatorship” (PMC).

Although Texas is legally mandated to continue to seek permanent placements for children in PMC, the attention paid to their cases diminishes significantly. As a result, many of the approximately 12,000 kids in this system of long-term foster care have little hope for forever families and instead are shuffled between a variety of foster and institutional placements that are poorly supervised by the state. The results of this failure are devastating:

  • Children are subjected to frequent moves between many different foster placements. Kids who aged out of foster care in 2013 had experienced an average of almost seven placements.
  • Youth are inappropriately placed in restrictive institutional settings and group homes, instead of with families. Studies have shown that institutional care is particularly damaging to young children, causing a variety of harms, including delayed language, poor mental development and decreased adaptive skills.
  • Children in long-term foster care are often denied access to necessary mental health services. According to recent federal reviews, Texas failed to address the mental health needs of nearly one in three of the children whose cases were reviewed.
  • Far too many young people age out of the system without being adopted — in 2012 this included about 39 percent of children who entered care before age 12, and 61 percent of children who went into care after age 12.

No doubt these issues are compounded because of workloads and the shockingly high rates for annual caseworker turnover. When approximately 34 percent of the workforce changes every year, kids often lose the continuity that helps keep them stable.

While this clearly is unacceptable, Texas has attempted to defeat our claim. But in 2013, a federal court judge ruled that Children’s Rights’ lawsuit could proceed as a class action on behalf of all children in PMC.

In a 107-page decision, the judge found that “There is ample evidence… that caseworkers are overburdened, that this might pose risks to the children… and that [the State agency] and other State officials had actual or constructive knowledge of these risks.” The case is scheduled for a full trial starting in December 2014.

Read additional articles in Notes from the Field, the Children’s Rights Newsletter: