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TEXAS VIEW: Righteous anger, disgust at treatment of foster kids - Odessa American: Texas Opinion

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TEXAS VIEW: Righteous anger, disgust at treatment of foster kids

THE POINT: Some improvements have been made, but why is it a fight to improve the lives of wounded children?

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Posted: Tuesday, October 27, 2020 2:30 am

In the nearly decade-long fight to reform Texas’ broken foster care system, it’s easy to understand the ire of U.S. District Judge Janis Graham Jack, the jurist overseeing the effort.

It began with a class-action lawsuit in 2011, brought by a New York children’s rights group on behalf of the 10,000-plus children in long-term foster care in Texas. The suit charged the system harms youth more than it helps them, so much so that it violates their constitutional rights.

Jack ruled in favor of the plaintiffs in 2015 and ordered the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services and the Health and Human Services Commission to fix a plethora of problems so that children, especially those in large foster care homes, might be better protected.

The ruling placed the state under federal court supervision, with two monitors, appointed by Jack, to serve as her eyes and ears. State officials appealed. A few of Jack’s reforms were overturned, but many survived.

Since then, it’s been one roadblock after another as the state has dragged its heels in enacting the fixes Jack demanded. Fixes to improve the lives of children needing shelter from the storm.

In November 2019, she ruled the state was in contempt of court for failing to comply with her order that large foster homes have 24-hour, awake supervision to keep kids safe from abuse during the overnight hours. Jack rightfully fined the state $150,000 for its dereliction of duty.

And last month, she ruled the state was in contempt a second time, for not complying with a host of orders meant to increase oversight at large residential facilities, improve the timeliness of state investigations into abuse and neglect in foster homes, and create software to alert workers of child-on-child sex abuse. State agencies that license homes and facilities that house large numbers of youth still aren’t communicating as they should, she found.

Again, Texas stands to be charged thousands of dollars for its noncompliance.

More than most judges, Jack has been vocal in her frustration — her disgust — with how the state has failed to act.

At the September hearing, according to news reports, she said, “I actually am stunned by the noncompliance of the state, but I keep being stunned every time we have one of these hearings.”

She fumed that H-E-B does a better job of tracking produce than Texas does tracking foster kids.

Fueling her anger was a report by those court-appointed monitors, released in June. It found kids in foster care contract COVID-19 at almost double the rate of the general population. And many are still in danger, especially in large private foster homes, where they’ve suffered injuries and the use of physical restraints.

In one Houston residential treatment center with a history of deficiencies, a teen died in February from a pulmonary embolism. Staff waited more than half an hour before calling 911.

The state stopped placing children at the center, but the center has remained open for months after the death, and the state has yet to pull its license. In fact, DFPS officials allowed the owners to open a new residential treatment center in Corpus Christi.

Closer to home, in September the state suspended the placement of foster youth at the Whataburger Center for Children and Youth, which serves as a temporary home for hard-to-place children in permanent foster care.

The center is overseen by the Children’s Shelter, a local nonprofit that is part of a statewide experiment to privatize most of the functions of foster care, with Bexar County being one of the first regions to do so.

The troubled center was deemed unsafe, with kids running away, punching holes in walls, refusing therapy and other deficiencies.

In December 2019, Gov. Greg Abbott appointed yet another person to lead the state agency that’s supposed to care for foster kids — the fourth commissioner in 10 years.

We’ve watched the foster care drama unfold since Jack got involved, and we share her deep frustration and disgust with state officials who seem to fight reform every step of the way.

Yes, some improvements have happened — thanks to the lawsuit. But why is it a fight to improve the lives of wounded children?

Odessa, TX

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