Texas Failing To Keep Youth in Foster Care Safe

Two independent special monitors brought in to evaluate reforms of Texas’s broken foster care system found serious lapses leading to deaths and grave injuries of children in the state’s long-term care

Texas

In December 2015, a federal judge ruled that Texas was violating the rights of children in long-term care of the state by subjecting them to abuse, overmedication and repeated placement moves. Nearly five years later, a damning report reveals that needed reforms aren’t taking place, and the consequences have been dire: Eleven children in the long-term care of the state died between July 31, 2019 and April 30, 2020, the special monitors found. 

One of those was a 14-year-old in a residential treatment center who complained of leg pain for weeks before collapsing and dying in the middle of the night of deep vein thrombosis in her right calf that led to a pulmonary embolism. Staff waited 37 minutes to call 911, the monitors found, “because direct care staff believed they needed permission from administrators to make that call.”

Another was a 3-year-old in the care of “fictive kin” (someone close to but not biologically related to the child) who was the subject of two abuse investigations in the month before the child was killed by the partner of a caregiver. Because of confusing and erroneous reporting, the child wasn’t seen face-to-face after the second report of abuse. 

A third was a suicidal teen who was discharged from a psychiatric hospital to an emergency shelter. Despite orders not to leave the 14-year-old unattended, she was left alone for 30 minutes, where she died by suicide before a staff member checked on her. 

“The Monitors’ ten months of investigation, analysis, interviews and site visits lead to the conclusion that more than two years after the Court issued its Final Order, the Texas child welfare system continues to expose children in permanent managing conservatorship (“PMC”) to an unreasonable risk of serious harm,” the report states.

Marcia Lowry, the executive director of A Better Childhood, who, along with Children’s Rights and Houston-based firm Yetter Coleman, brought the class-action suit against Texas nine years ago, called the report “shocking.”

“What comes through this report is the lack of concern for the kids, frankly,” Lowry said. “I think these kids are not safe in the Texas foster care system, and the officials don’t seem to care.”

The two independent special monitors appointed by Judge Janis Jack are Kevin Ryan, the president of Covenant House, and Deborah Fowler, executive director of the nonprofit Texas Appleseed. They were brought in to help detail and monitor needed reforms. 

In the report, issued June 16, these monitors found substantial threats to children’s safety. In addition to children dying due to preventable failures, the monitors repeatedly found that “harm to children is at critical times overlooked, ignored, or forgotten.”

Monitors also identified serious lapses at the front door of the state’s child protection system. The report notes that a significant number of calls to the abuse and neglect hotline (18 percent) were abandoned, and 33 percent reports of abuse or neglect were inappropriately downgraded. The investigations “were often so cursory, or so elongated and riddled with gaps, that the Monitors could not reach a conclusion regarding the result.” 

When it comes to investigating harm done to children already in foster care, they noted, Texas is using a “standard for investigating … that creates a higher threshold for investigation for children in the State’s care than for other children.”

In one instance, the monitors interviewed a frightened boy at a residential treatment center who said “staff hit them and beat on them every day for no reason.” An investigation found one of the staff members there, who had hit the boy and broken his glasses, “had been investigated for abuse or neglect more than twenty times over a more than fifteen year career. …This was the seventh time just since 2016 that this perpetrator had been investigated for slapping or punching a child; all of those investigations ruled out abuse.”

The monitors also found a lack of communication between the two state agencies tasked with investigating abuse and neglect, each with its own system for tracking data, leading to “innumerable opportunities for critical information to slip through the gaps between the two databases.”

The state Department of Family and Protective Services declined to comment and referred questions to the office of Attorney General Ken Paxton. That office did not immediately respond to an email seeking comment.

Lowry, who has been involved in more than a dozen lawsuits against states and cities for failures of their foster care systems, said the report detailed “as bad a system … as I’ve ever seen.” 

“This case is about safety, this is about as basic as it gets. Are they getting hurt? They are. Are they dying? They are,” Lowry said. “Yet there’s no sense of outrage or desire to do anything about it. And that’s a concern.”

Roxanna Asgarian is a freelance journalist and can be reached at roxannafaye@gmail.com.

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