TEXAS VIEW: Texas foster care needs money to keep kids safe

THE POINT: Lawmakers have billions and could fund foster care like never before.


That’s the question that advocates for Texas children who are neglected, abandoned, abused and in need of a safe place to live ask almost daily. That’s the question children themselves ask. It’s a question every single Texan should be asking.

Why does one of the wealthiest states in the nation, a state with a huge budget surplus to work with, find it almost impossible to take care of these children?

Why, over the years, has Texas so vigorously resisted a long-running, class-action lawsuit designed to radically reform a foster care system that not only has failed to meet the most basic needs of these children but has actually placed them in harm’s way?

Why, nearly two-and-a-half years after Gov. Greg Abbott ordered two state agencies that are his co-defendants in the class-action case to “fully comply” with a federal judge’s orders, are the agencies still balking, still resisting? Why, by the end of this legislative session, this bountiful session, is the foster care system expected emerge relatively unchanged?

One more question: Why do Texas lawmakers worry more about drag shows, transgender medical care and books about being gay on school library shelves than they do about the needs of abused and neglected children in their own custody — the custody, that is, of the State of Texas?

We’re talking about roughly 20,000 young Texans, from infants to older teenagers, who, through no fault of their own, have been removed from their parents’ homes and are now in the foster care system.

We are well aware that countless state employees with the Department of Family and Protective Services and the Health and Human Services Commission, go to work every morning with the well-being of these children uppermost in their minds. Their job is difficult, often heart-wrenching. Caseloads are intolerably high, and turnover is at crisis stage.

The state employees have their counterparts in the private sector and among volunteers dedicated to caring for children desperately in need of a safe and healthy home.

U.S. District Judge Janis Graham Jack — who at this point should be eligible for sainthood after 12 long years of poking, prodding and trying to pull the state into compliance with best practices and at the very least, constitutionality — is equally dedicated. During a hearing last month in a federal courthouse in Corpus Christi, she noted that Texas has made improvements in recent years but has fallen back into its old bad habits in some areas.

Threats to children’s safety are growing, not receding, she said, noting that too many foster children — including children 3 years of age and younger — are being prescribed four or more mental-health drugs at one time without the necessary evaluations and assessments.

“The State can’t ignore the glaring issues with misuse and abuse of powerful drugs on young children,” said Paul Yetter, the Houston business attorney who has represented the plaintiffs pro bono since the case was filed in 2011, in an email to the editorial board. “Providers are violating state regulations without any consequences or, apparently, oversight. This is a huge health and safety risk in the system.”

The judge also chided the state for not moving fast enough to reduce the number of children living in hotels and churches because they don’t have families or shelters to take them in. And she charged that foster children who have been victims of sexual abuse are being placed in bedrooms alongside youth with histories of sexual aggression.

Now 76 and on senior status, Jack has presided since 2011 over the suit filed by two New York-based nonprofit groups asserting that Texas operates an unsafe, long-term foster care system. These days, plaintiffs are concerned that Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton is trying to pressure the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals to rein in Jack, if not replace her.

So what’s the problem? Why do we tolerate a system that’s “chronically broken,” to quote Austin foster parent Kristin Finan. She and her husband Patrick Badgley are parents of six children, four of them foster children. She also co-founded Carrying Hope, a non-profit that serves foster children in Austin and more recently in Houston — Houston, she says, “because the need is so great.”

State Rep. Gene Wu, a Houston Democrat who serves on the House Committee on Juvenile Justice and Family Issues, has at least a partial answer to the question of why. “Everyone says … I’m very concerned about kids in foster care and all the bad things that happen, but don’t ask me what to do about it,” Wu told the Texas Tribune recently. “And don’t ask me to take away my funding priorities to pay for that. They won’t ever say that publicly. But that’s what is going through members’ minds.”

In the waning days of this legislative session, the proposed budget would give DFPS $300 million out of the budget surplus, money that would be used to increase pay for some foster care providers. Under the current system, relatives who take in children get paid much less than other foster parents. Legislation sponsored by state Sen. Royce West, D-Dallas, and Rep. Lacy Hull, R-Houston, would equalize the payments. A bill sponsored by Rep. Armando Walle, D-Houston, would lower the caseloads for DFPS staff, some of whom have been carrying more than double, some more than triple, the standard caseload of 20.

At this point, those bills are either dead or dying, even though as attorney Yetter notes, “There are critical reforms waiting to be done, and all we hear from the state is ‘We don’t have the money.’ We’d prefer for the state to work cooperatively with us. But innocent children are still at risk.”

This year, of course, we have had the money. With an unprecedented surplus of nearly $33 billion, the Legislature could fund foster care like never before. DFPS still needs more money for family or friends who take in foster children, for staff raises and for foster children aging out of the system (far too many who, in Wu’s words, “end up in prison, sex-trafficking or dead.”) Additional funding wouldn’t fix every problem, but it could go a long way toward addressing the complications that perpetually make it difficult to take care of our most vulnerable children. Of course, to get that done, we would have to distract lawmakers from guys in dresses and alleged smut in the stacks.

Wu concedes that the state has made some progress since 2017. In a recent interview, he mentioned a 2021 bill sponsored by Rep. James Frank, R-Wichita Falls, that revised the requirements for when a child could be moved out of the home.

Frank has been a foster parent himself. His bill was based on the premise that keeping the child in the home if at all possible both avoids the inevitable trauma of separation and reduces the number of children who need an often difficult-to-locate place to live. Wu, an attorney who specializes in representing children in Child Protective Services cases, believes the new approach is working. It’s one small step in a long, difficult journey.

One other thing: Jack, unimpeded, needs to stay on the job.

In the words of plaintiffs’ attorney Yetter, “Judge Jack has been a godsend for Texas foster children. I think the 5th Circuit expects her to continue to give careful and close guidance to the reforms needed to ensure safe homes for these vulnerable children. The judge is determined to fix this broken system, and we plan to be there with her every step of the way. The children deserve no less.”

Wu echoed Yetter. “The people involved have no voice,” he told us. “They’re either children or they’re parents, usually poor, who have no political power. I have appreciated having the court there to speak for them.”

We should all appreciate Jack. She’s doing the Lord’s work, which, apparently, Abbott, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and other powerful people running the state of Texas have no intention of doing willingly.

That brings us back to a somewhat more spirited version of our original question: Why the hell not?

Houston Chronicle