Let's not wait for a court ruling to address the needs of foster kids
By Sen. Carlos Uresti
A federal judge has certified a class-action lawsuit against the state's foster care system, once again casting state policy on at-risk children in an unflattering light. Texas has a poor track record when it comes to winning such cases in the courtroom, but there's an opportunity here to come out on top in another way.
In her Aug. 27 ruling, U.S. Judge Janis Jack of Corpus Christi granted class-action status to a lawsuit that claims abused and neglected children are being harmed by the very system that was designed to protect them.
In a written statement provided to the Houston Chronicle, the plaintiffs' attorneys said they will prove that "the state fails to monitor children's safety, putting them in understaffed group homes and unlicensed homes of relatives who are not given the same training or support as foster parents or inappropriately placing them in congregate care when they could be properly served in a more family-like setting. ... These deficiencies lead to damaging consequences, including high rates of maltreatment, frequent and repeated moves between placements, and unnecessary separation of children from their siblings and communities."
Judge Jack blamed much of the problem on overburdened caseworkers at the Department of Family and Protective Services, whom she called "these children's fire alarms."
High caseloads and the job pressures they bring are behind the soaring staff turnover rate at DFPS — more than 24 percent in fiscal 2012.
"There is ample evidence that caseworkers are overburdened, that this might pose risks to the children ... and that ... state officials had actual or constructive knowledge of these risks and have not acted to cap or otherwise limit caseloads," the judge said in her ruling.
With Judge Jack's decision, attorneys for the 12,000 Texas children in permanent foster care have won the right to present their case in court. In the meantime, the state agency responsible for these kids should begin implementing solutions immediately.
Fortunately, some solutions have already been identified. Earlier this year, the Legislature passed a state budget that provided significant additional funding for child protection and abuse prevention programs overseen by DFPS.
I passed a new law requiring special training for Child Protective Services employees who are hired for or promoted to supervisory positions. The goal is to ensure that supervisors are well equipped before they begin their new responsibilities, which in turn will help reduce the agency's staff turnover rate.
I also established a pilot program in Bexar County that will provide specialized training to foster parents of children with severe mental health needs or those who have experienced extreme trauma.
But new money and programs by themselves won't solve all the problems. We need activism from outside the government, from dedicated child advocates in groups like the Blue Ribbon Task Force, United Way, TexProtects, the Center for Public Policy Priorities, Any Baby Can, St. PJ's Children Home, CASA, ChildSafe, and many others.
There must also be a change in the culture at DFPS that will encourage caseworkers to stay on the job. Fortunately, the two people most responsible for the agency are up to the task.
Dr. Kyle Janek, executive commissioner of the Health and Human Services Commission; and DFPS Commissioner John Specia, Jr. care deeply about children in foster care. I have worked with both men on these issues, and I know they are committed to this goal.
Too often in the past — in lawsuits challenging the state's prison system, school finance system, and mental health system — the state chose not to act until it had a legal ruling pointed at its head. Working together with Dr. Janek and Judge Specia, we can get in front of the court this time and keep foster children out of harm's way.