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Facing pressure from judge, Texas reassigns workers to care for foster kids in unlicensed homes

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Facing pressure from judge, Texas reassigns workers to care for foster kids in unlicensed homes

Jan 22, 2024 | 7:02 pm ET
By Karen Brooks Harper
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Facing pressure from judge, Texas reassigns workers to care for foster kids in unlicensed homes
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A Department of Family and Protective Services home for children without placement in Belton, photographed by court-appointed monitors checking on the living conditions of children in the care of the state. (Court-appointed foster care monitors)

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Texas child welfare officials are reassigning staff to focus on monitoring the unlicensed motels and rental homes that house some of the most vulnerable children in the foster-care system — a move officials said Monday is the latest attempt to comply with a years-old court order to keep those children safer.

Stephanie Muth, commissioner of the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services, told a federal district judge in Corpus Christi on Monday that her agency has trained about 30 experienced caseworkers to focus full-time on caring for children who have been removed from their homes but for whom the state has no licensed facility to place them.

Those children, known as children without placement, can be as young as 10 but are often teens with complex trauma and behavioral needs. Prior court hearings have revealed that they have lived in unlicensed facilities and were supervised in as many as six shifts a day by a rotation of already overworked DFPS caseworkers instead of trained medical professionals. The result was unsafe conditions rife with violence, abuse and neglect.

The staffing changes are designed to make it so that regular caseworkers aren’t expected to work overtime rotations to care for the children without placement. Those caseworkers have said those shifts were burdensome, sapped their morale and led to unsafe conditions for both the children and the workers.

U.S. District Judge Janis Jack said she’d rather those unlicensed locations be closed altogether and that the children be directly placed in licensed state facilities that are equipped to handle their considerable needs.

“They’re still going to be in those awful hotels with the outside staircases and the sex trafficking and the drug deals,” Jack said.

Muth and Prerak Shah, the attorney representing the state, said the agency’s primary goal is to find licensed placements for all children and to keep children out of the unlicensed facilities.

Children are currently kept in locations that include four single-family homes the state rents in or near Killeen, Belton and Temple in the Central Texas region. Six other residences — including apartments and religious-run group homes — are located in Houston, El Paso and Big Bend areas, Northeast Texas, and the Midland-Odessa area. The state uses hotel and motel rooms mostly in the urban areas.

The overtime shifts by caseworkers at those places, described by court officials as dangerous and chaotic for both kids and staff, are a major contributor to high staff turnover and low morale at the agency, officials say.

The new staff positions caring for children without placement have been filled by current or former caseworkers. Those workers will travel to locations across the state as needed depending on how many children are living in each place at any given time, officials said.

Two of the new positions started Monday, and more will start in the coming days, officials said. They will not have any other cases, allowing them to focus entirely on supervising the children in those temporary placements, officials said.

Monday’s hearing was part of a nearly 13-year-old lawsuit in which Jack has found Texas was violating the constitutional rights of foster children by exposing them to an “unreasonable risk of harm.” Jack made her first ruling condemning the state foster care system in 2015, and three years later, the conservative Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals agreed. Since then, she’s ordered several fixes over the years and continuously criticized the state for not complying with her orders.

She spent much of Monday’s hearing blasting state officials for slow progress in the system.

She also repeatedly rebuked state officials for failing to bring to Monday’s hearing documentation she ordered that would show her what kind of progress the state was making toward fixing the problems facing the agency.

“This is no way to conduct a hearing about the safety of children,” Jack said. “I mean, it's one thing, doing these unbelievably poor investigations for these children in your care, but to disobey a court's order to produce documents about something as important as the children without licensed placement is inexcusable.”

At one point, she threatened contempt before agreeing to give them until Wednesday to produce the ordered documents.

“Have you ever seen the inside of a jail cell?” she asked Muth and Cecile Erwin Young, executive commissioner of the Texas Health and Human Services Commission.

Jack has not yet decided, after a December hearing, whether DFPS, which manages the foster care system, should be held in contempt of court for the third time since the lawsuit was filed.

Since 2019, DFPS has been under the supervision of court-appointed monitors who have released periodic reports on Texas’ progress toward eliminating threats to children’s safety in the foster care system.

Their most recent report, filed earlier this month, cited progress in the area of staff training but continued weaknesses in the agencies’ responses to investigations into allegations of abuse and neglect made by children or those who contact them.

In one instance, according to the report, staffers at a school where children with intellectual disabilities from one unlicensed facility attended told DFPS officials they were showing up unbathed, with unbrushed teeth and dried feces on their clothes.

They were bruised and scratched, they’d show up with skull fractures, other injuries, many untreated, the report said. They included elementary and high school students with autism and other issues, the report said.

Jack blasted state officials on Monday for having few details about the incidents in the report, and for not closing down the location — where there are still three children living. Officials said the state took some “safety actions” but did not elaborate in testimony.

Children without placement wind up in unregulated, unlicensed and often poorly supervised homes because the state cannot find private providers who can or will accept them. They are removed from their homes due to circumstances that can include abuse at home, or complex health needs that parents are unable to manage without help, or the loss of their family caregivers.

Court monitors say they have found evidence that they are poorly supervised, frequently overmedicated, targeted by traffickers, and unable to get help if they’re facing continued abuse. Some 2,100 “serious incidents” of death, abuse, neglect, runaway and suicide attempts were reported at the CWOP houses last year, said Paul Yetter, an attorney for the children.

Reports include children becoming pregnant, being trafficked, abusing alcohol and drugs, skipping school and medical regimens, attacking each other, threatening suicide and being placed in multiple temporary placements for months at a time.

Staffers have reported being threatened, groped and attacked.

In 2022, Texas DFPS caseworkers put in more than 600,000 hours of overtime at the state’s so-called CWOP facilities, Yetter said.

When final OT numbers come in for 2023, he said, that number will likely surpass 700,000 hours.

Staffing has been cited by the state repeatedly in court hearings as a major issue contributing to challenges at the CWOP locations.

In exit interviews of former caseworkers, some of which Yetter and Jack read aloud in court on Monday, they said they were quitting because the CWOP houses had become “catastrophic” for the agency due to the sheer burnout on staffers and the dangers faced by staff and children.

The burden of poor staffing, which officials said has plagued the agency for years, reaches into several areas of the system, Yetter told the court on Monday.

Last year, more than 173,000 calls to the agency’s statewide intake center, which receives reports of abuse and neglect of children and adults in state care, were abandoned by the callers because they weren’t answered in time, according to DFPS records, Yetter said.

Wait times for those callers averages over five minutes, he said.

Muth told Jack that the agency had asked the state for budget increases to reduce those wait times but didn’t get it.

“Is it safe for children to have these calls that are dropped?”Jack asked. “Is that safe for the children [when] there would have been somebody who would have reported their abuse, neglect or exploitation?”