TEXAS VIEW: Will big fines force Texas to fix its foster care system?

THE POINT: We share Judge Janis Graham Jack’s alarm about sexual abuse of children and other failures.

During the latest hearing in Texas’ decade-long foster care lawsuit, federal District Judge Janis Graham Jack again threatened to hold two state agencies in contempt of court because of their continued failure to fix unsafe conditions for foster care children they’re supposed to protect.

We hope she does. Maybe only fines will force Texas to act with more urgency to turn things around.

This is no one’s preferred outcome. We are rooting for the success of the Department of Family and Protective Services, or DFPS, which is the agency in charge of placing children, and the Health and Human Services Commission, or HHSC, the agency tasked with licensing foster care operations. We want their success because children’s safety depends on it.

And to the agencies’ credit, there has been some improvement. According to a recent report issued by federal monitors appointed by Jack, state agencies have shown progress in eliminating some threats to children’s well-being and in boosting the regulatory oversight of licensed foster care facilities.

It’s not that nothing is being done to reform the state’s foster care system. The problem is that the turnaround is not happening fast enough. In the meantime, Texas children are getting hurt. There are more than 30,000 kids in the care of the state.

One of the monitors’ most alarming findings in their 209-page report filed this month is that a fourth of the 422 children whose cases they reviewed had been sexually victimized or revictimized after entering foster care.

“I don’t know what is an acceptable (rate), but 25% is not, ”Jack said at a court hearing last week.

A subset of those children who were victimized — 27 of them — were abused more than once. Almost half of the sexual abuse incidents that the monitors reviewed occurred while the child was a runaway from a foster care placement. Still, 36% of the incidents took place while the child was in a licensed foster care setting. And chillingly, more than a fourth of the sexual abuse perpetrators were other children in foster care.

That last data point highlights another major failure. According to the monitors, fewer than half of the records of about 650 children that they reviewed showed that caregivers had signed to attest that they had received forms that document children’s histories of being sexually abused or sexually aggressive.

Other breakdowns cited in the monitors’ report: an ongoing shortage of placements, inadequate background checks of foster care employees and lax treatment of foster care facilities out of compliance with state rules.

Is it any wonder that Jack is frustrated?

Our colleague Robert T. Garrett reported last week that DFPS Commissioner Jaime Masters announced the hiring of Anne Heiligenstein, a past commissioner, as her No. 2. Masters made other moves to shake up leadership at the agency.

We are cautiously optimistic. The agency has to change, and fresh hires may help it move forward. But we were also hopeful when Masters took over in late 2019, and DFPS is still struggling.

Children in the care of the state need more than hope that things will improve. They need action.

Dallas Morning News