(TEXAS TRIBUNE) – U.S. District Judge Janis Jack unexpectedly ended a Tuesday afternoon hearing in the ten-year lawsuit against Texas over failures in its foster care system, saying he was time to “get straight to the point” and find solutions.
“All I want us to do is come together and find solutions,” Jack said. “I’m no longer interested in sanctions or having my feet on fire. I just want these kids to be safe.
Jack suggested that concerned parties meet with forensic monitors – who have become subject matter experts – to identify solutions to the lingering problems plaguing the foster care system. His clerk said the judge also appeared to have canceled the continuation of the hearing for Wednesday.
For three hours, the judge, children’s legal counsel and state officials discussed the new findings of the court-appointed watchdogs, including details of unauthorized and unsafe placements – such as offices and hotels – where foster children have been placed, where many have received incorrect or inappropriate doses of medication, have been exposed to sexual abuse or have self-harm.
Jack suggested a new approach after Paul Yetter, senior attorney representing children, asked if the Texas Department of Family Services and Protection would be willing to sit down with his team and other agencies in the State to discuss potential solutions.
The judge asked Yetter for his thoughts on the solutions and made his decision. During the morning, she had repeatedly explained how so many of the same issues have continued to plague the foster care system over the past 10 years despite the federal lawsuit.
“I don’t know if anything would be served by continuing the hearing,” she said. “Should we try to brainstorm together and see if we can come up with something achievable? “
DFPS commissioner Jaime Masters said she was “100% okay” with the judge’s suggestion, and other state officials have also shown their support.
Jack said that before moving forward, she wanted the governor’s approval and support for the plan.
“The governors of the past, along with this governor and lawmakers of the past, have done study after study after study and have raised the same issues – the exact same issues,” she said. “I think if we all work on this, we can find a way to help keep these kids safe. “
Tuesday’s hearing began after the release of the forensic monitors’ latest report, which detailed the troubling conditions children in state custody have endured this year after being placed in unlicensed facilities.
Children in unauthorized care were sometimes given the wrong medication, while others went without their prescribed medication for days, according to the report. Investigators have found evidence of child-to-child sexual abuse. Some children ran away, and there is evidence that some contacted sex traffickers. Untrained staff tied up children as young as 7, and in one case a security guard handcuffed a child.
The monitors also found that children with severe emotional disturbances harmed each other while in state detention and that some of them had not received treatment. There is evidence that children have cut themselves with sharp objects, attempted to hang themselves to the point of unconsciousness, and ingested cleaning fluids.
Unlicensed placements have continued to skyrocket in Texas since last year. In the first half of this year, 501 children spent at least one night in an unauthorized public placement, according to the new report. On average, children spent two consecutive weeks in unauthorized placements, with one child spending 144 consecutive nights in such placements.
In 2015, Jack had ruled that the state violated the constitutional right of foster children to be free from unreasonable risk of harm, claiming that children “often age out of care more damaged than when they first entered “. Since then, there have been numerous hearings in federal court, Jack has issued several orders to overhaul the system, and the state has been found in contempt of those orders on two occasions. The monitors act as watchdogs on the system, investigating damage to children within it.
After the recent closure of dozens of facilities, the system has lost hundreds of beds, especially those for children with very specialized needs. Many facilities that have closed were first placed under increased scrutiny – a probationary status that requires the state to take a closer look at a facility’s operations and put it on a plan for improvement.
In Texas, 485 licensed facilities placed children in foster care between 2015 and 2020. Of these, the report indicates that 127 were placed under enhanced supervision – representing more than a quarter of facilities – after accumulating a high number of violations of minimum standards in recent years. . There were nearly 29,000 children in the Texas child welfare system as of September 7.
And while some foster care providers have said these closures were triggered by court actions, monitors maintain those actions were necessary.
“There is no doubt that operations qualified for enhanced surveillance had serious child safety issues,” the monitors wrote. In 2020 and 2021, facilities under enhanced supervision accounted for “a total of 631 substantiated allegations of abuse, neglect or exploitation of children in their care during the five-year period included in the analyzes, and 14 227 minimum standards violations, of which 12,558 (88%) concerned minimum standards rated high, medium-high or medium. “
Before concluding Tuesday’s hearing, Jack responded to claims that heightened surveillance and lawsuits were behind the crisis.
“Texas is closing these facilities because you have determined that they are not safe for children,” she said. Not a single one that has closed has been deemed safe, she said.
In its own report, the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services, which oversees the state’s foster care system, said the department did not blame the court’s actions for the foster care crisis. In the summary of the DFPS report, signed by Commissioner Jaime Masters, the agency said placing children in unauthorized care is a “last resort”. Masters also said the agency is struggling to meet the specialized needs of children and that pursuing an approach that keeps them with their families and connects them to home treatment would help alleviate some of the problems.
The court-appointed supervisors report detailed numerous accounts of children abused in these unlicensed facilities, which he said were often run by “overworked and untrained staff.”
Almost as many foster children enter unlicensed placements – spend nights in CPS offices, hotels, motels and other places under questionable supervision – as they enter, according to the report. approved group facilities or are placed with host families, according to the report.
The monitors said the children in these unauthorized placements suffered “substantial risks,” including physical and sexual abuse and neglect, which compounded existing emotional, mental and physical health problems.
“By housing children in these unregulated environments, Texas has placed children in caregivers who are overworked and not well trained to keep them safe, putting them at unreasonable risk of serious harm,” the monitors wrote.
According to the report, 86% of children without a suitable placement who were observed from January 1 to June 30 were adolescents, although the youngest child was 1 year old at the time of his placement. Many children need specialized care because of past trauma or because of their physical and mental needs.
But counselors say the behavioral and mental problems the children suffered “were frequently made worse by the very system designed to protect them.”
Since January 2020, the state has lost more than 1,600 beds, the majority of which came from operations that housed and treated children with high needs.
Some of those children have been transferred out of state for treatment, to Florida, Missouri, Arkansas, Colorado and Kansas, Masters said in Tuesday’s hearing.
“We have exhausted all the options available for placement,” Masters said.
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