Judge: Texas foster kids leave worse than when they enter

AUSTIN (KXAN) — Many children leave the state’s foster care system worse off than when they enter; that’s according to a federal judge in Corpus Christi who ordered Texas Child Protective Services to make immediate changes. It’s a case years in the making, marked with many tragedies.

Texans see again and again tragic examples of children falling through the cracks while under the watch of the state. Two siblings drowned while playing in a lake in Georgetown in 2014. That same year, authorities found another child, Colton Turner, dead in a shallow grave. His mother and her boyfriend still await trial. Advocates say those deaths would be less likely if Child Protective Services had more resources.

At least a U.S. District Judge Janis Jack believed so, and ordered CPS to immediately begin the process to hire more caseworkers and be more vigilant of Texas foster kids.

“I think it really is a robust and definitely stern kind of call out of the Department of Family and Protective Services,” said Sarah Crockett from Texas CASA.

She says when there are not enough caseworkers, much of the oversight of the kids fall on their court-appointed volunteers. She says often times they are the only adults watching out for foster kids from start to finish. Those volunteers are always in short supply.

“We really need to try and work as a system to address the trauma that these kids have experienced,” said Crockett.

The Department of Family and Protective Services released a statement saying they’ve been working on these very issues internally and are disappointed by the ruling. The state has 30 days to appeal.

“We are obviously disappointed with the ruling, because great progress has been achieved improving the Texas foster care system. Texas performs comparably with other states in this area, and has steadily improved. The children in our care come to us after suffering horrific abuse and neglect, and we use all available state resources to protect and nurture them. We will continue to work constantly to find permanent homes for all of our foster children. DFPS and the Attorney General’s team are thoroughly reviewing the opinion and will be advising Texas leadership on immediate next step,” said Julie Moody, spokeswoman for the Department of Family Protective Services.

“One of the challenges that we have in Texas is our caseworkers actually have two to three times the nationally recommended case loads, which means they don’t get to spend a lot of time with the kids,” said Crockett.

The judge ordered the state to pay for a new position called a “special master” to implement the reforms.  That new position will decide:

  • how many new caseworkers are needed
  • how to ban foster group homes without 24 hour supervision.
  • encourage judges to appoint CASA volunteers to more foster kids.

Child Protective Services has approximately 8,000 employees and costs around $1.2 billion a year to run.

Last year, KXAN revealed Travis County judges spent less than 10 minutes on cases involving abused and neglected children. The recommendation by the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges is 30 minutes to an hour per CPS hearing.

Caseworker retention, oversight of Child Care Licensing and child safety were major goals of the Texas legislature in 2015. Lawmakers realigned the roles of CPS supervisors, DFPS hiring specialists and human service contractors. They also implemented a new caseworker mentoring program to encourage workers to stay in a field known for high turnover.

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