TEXAS VIEW: Abused Texas foster kids need a lifeline. Where’s Abbott?

THE POINT: We thought we’d heard it all, but Texas finds new and appalling ways to fail children in foster care.

U.S. District Judge Janis Graham Jack recently brought harrowing details to light in a 427-page contempt order that would shake anyone’s faith in humanity. Jack offered dozens of examples of severely flawed state investigations that put foster children in danger, particularly those who require medication for mental illnesses. Few were as disturbing as “Child C,” a teenage girl who suffered abuse at a group home in Austin that was so extensive it led to 12 state investigations in one year.

Child C first entered the foster care system as a traumatized toddler, removed from the care of her biological mother at age 3 due to physical and mental abuse. She has a range of behavioral and developmental disorders, and is given 12 pills to take every day. When Child C was placed at C3 Christian Academy in Austin in 2021 at age 14, she performed academically at the level of a preschooler, and had an IQ score of 55.

In May 2021 a state investigator found “a preponderance of evidence” that a staff member used a Taser on Child C on her arm while she was in bed. In July 2021, Child C ran away from the group home, was returned by a law enforcement officer, then attempted to strangle herself.

In April 2022, Child C’s caseworker reported she was admitted to the hospital with her jaw broken in two places. An administrator at the group home told investigators a staff member had punched the child in the face multiple times and she went to bed untreated. It wasn’t until the following day when an administrator observed Child C bloodied and bruised that they took her to the hospital.

As the presiding judge in a decade-old class-action lawsuit designed to force an overhaul of the foster care system, Jack has mandated a laundry list of reforms, including requiring the state to complete high-priority investigations within 30 days, and that investigators must make face-to-face contact with child victims. Each of the investigations involving Child C took months, and sometimes more than a year to complete, and several did not even interview her directly.

Jack, whom the Dallas Morning News named Texan of the Year for pushing the state to improve its foster care system, has been extraordinarily patient with the state. She has practically begged Gov. Greg Abbott, Health and Human Services and the Department of Family and Protective Services to abide by the reforms she’s ordered, and given them every chance to avoid a fate that nobody wants: a federal takeover of the entire system.

Yet the continued failures detailed in her order prompted Jack to hold HHS in contempt, issuing fines of $100,000 a day until the agency complies with her mandates. A federal appeals court temporarily blocked the fine while the state appeals Jack’s ruling. A compliance hearing is scheduled for June 26.

While Jack has repeatedly said she’d prefer not to take the Draconian step of a federal receivership, the state’s continued recalcitrance may force her hand. While the plaintiffs’ attorneys in the class-action suit have pushed for it, even they acknowledge ceding control of a state agency to a federal monitor would be a dramatic setback.

“Nothing is going to change quickly or substantially until state leadership decides that this is a priority,” Paul Yetter, one of the plaintiffs’ attorneys, told the editorial board. “Even with a receivership, if you don’t have the state executives behind it supporting reform and not resisting, it’s going to go very slowly.”

Washington, D.C., is the only other jurisdiction to have a federal receiver take over its foster care system, from 1995 through 2001. When their receiver was terminated, many advocates complained that the system was no better off than it was before. In fact, there were still gut-wrenching incidents under the receivership, such as a 1-year-old child who was beaten to death by a family friend after a judge removed her from foster care.

We’d much prefer that Abbott take responsibility for instituting the reforms mandated by Jack. Instead, he seems content to pay high-priced attorneys up to $6 million to defend the state at every turn rather than concede any failures.

Resources are not the issue. The Legislature has done its part, providing $400 million of the state budget surplus last session to increase payments to foster care providers. A policy reform blueprint is also right at Abbott’s fingertips. An expert panel the governor convened came up with a list of short- and long-term recommendations, such as emergency funding to place more kids with grandparents, aunts and uncles and kinship providers and strengthening mental health services for all children in foster care.

Tough talk is not in short supply either. In January 2021, Abbott ordered HHS and DFPS to quickly comply with Jack’s orders five days after she found them in contempt. His directive was unequivocal and even child welfare advocates concede, for a time, it led to a complete change in attitude by the agencies overseeing our foster care system. Yet far too many children are still caught in a revolving door from psychiatric care to unregulated, poorly supervised group homes because the state refuses to find proper placements for them.

What’s lacking is executive leadership and the necessary commitment that Abbott gives to more politically advantageous issues. Instead of staging photo ops on the border, he should focus his attention on foster children.

The state is on the road to a receivership unless he can prove he is willing to reform rather than resist an overhaul of the foster care system.

Houston Chronicle