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Appeals Court Upholds Key Fixes to Texas Foster Care System

(AUSTIN, TX) – In a victory for children in Texas foster care, the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals partially upheld a ruling yesterday calling for the state of Texas to address long-standing problems in Texas’ foster care system.

The Fifth Circuit ruled that the state of Texas must make significant reforms to its foster care system, including hiring more caseworkers to ease excessive caseloads, as well as strengthening oversight to reduce negligence and abuse.

National advocacy organization Children’s Rights and Texas co-counsel Haynes and Boone, LLP and Yetter Coleman LLP brought M.D. v. Abbott on behalf of 12,000 children in permanent foster care (a.k.a. permanent managing conservatorship, or  PMC). Currently, the Texas child welfare system allows 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. In December 2015, U.S. District Judge Janis Graham Jack ruled in favor of plaintiff children, declaring Texas must make targeted changes to its foster care system to improve thousands of young lives.

“For too long, thousands of children in Texas have been subjected to unsafe living conditions and inadequate foster care services,” said Paul Yetter, lead trial lawyer for the plaintiffs. “This ruling gives hope that the state of Texas will finally invest the resources it needs to properly serve the most vulnerable children in its care.”

“This ruling is a huge victory for children in the Texas foster care system. It is imperative that foster kids have caseworkers with adequate time to care for them; the Court’s order that Texas add vital staff to meet this need confirms that children’s constitutional rights were violated by the Department of Family and Protective Services,” said Sandy Santana, Executive Director of Children’s Rights. “Children’s well-being must be the top priority, and we’re pleased that the court agrees Texas must implement serious oversight improvements to protect kids’ health and safety.”

The Fifth Circuit’s ruling noted “a wealth of evidence at trial establishing that many children experience some degree of concrete harm after entering the State’s care,” and that the state was “deliberately indifferent” to the systemic flaws threatening the safety of foster children.

The Amended Complaint alleged violations of the plaintiff children’s constitutional rights, including their right not to be harmed while in state custody and their right to associate with their birth families. Issues described in the complaint include:

  • The Texas Department of Family Protective Services (DFPS) has an insufficient number of caseworkers, forcing caseworkers to carry over double the recognized safe caseload  standards, putting children at risk. In 2011, 55 percent of caseworkers had caseloads exceeding 30 children and 24 percent had caseloads exceeding 40 children.
  • DFPS has an insufficient number and geographic distribution of placement options. In 2011, 55 percent of children were placed outside of their home counties.
  • Sibling groups are frequently split up.
  • Texas places children in non-therapeutic and non-emergency group care, despite acknowledging that these homes are too restrictive for children’s needs. At homes like these, including foster group homes, children were often not properly supervised, resulting in serious safety incidents.
  • Children experience too many placement moves. As of August 2011, 35 percent of children in PMC had already been in five or more placements.
  • DFPS fails to enforce compliance with licensing standards, relying heavily on child placing agencies and residential facilities to verify their own compliance.
  • Children languish in care without permanent homes. In state Fiscal Year 2011, 1,202 children in PMC “aged out” of foster care (typically at age 18) without a permanent home, representing 17.5 percent of all children exiting PMC.

To learn more about M.D. v. Abbott, click here.

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About Children’s Rights: Fighting to transform America’s failing child welfare, juvenile justice, education and healthcare systems is one of the most important social justice movements of our time. Through strategic advocacy and legal action, Children’s Rights holds state governments accountable to America’s most vulnerable children. A national watchdog organization since 1995, Children’s Rights fights to protect and defend the rights of young people, because we believe that children have the right to the best possible futures. For more information, please visit www.childrensrights.org.

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