Recommendations by independent experts assigned to help overhaul the state's beleaguered foster care system call for increased transparency and training, as well as life skills training starting at age 14, to help ease the transition of kids who age out of the system, among other plans.
Filed November 4, nearly one year after a federal court judge ruled that the Department of Family and Protective Services violated the constitutional rights of 12,000 foster children, the special masters's recommendations appear to be a positive step forward, but also indicate how much work lays ahead.
As U.S. District Court Judge Janis Jack wrote in her ruling, the state's foster care system has become a place where "rape, abuse, psychotropic medication, and instability are the norm." It's been operating in such disrepair that many of the special masters's recommendations are stunning in their common-sense appeals.
One recommendation, for example, calls for DFPS to regularly update photos for foster care children, to solve the problem of swamped caseworkers not knowing what the kids in their care look like.
The recommendations represent a general outline and require DFPS to conduct studies — like for average caseload — before the special masters can even get to the next phase. The masters wrote that another study ordered by the judge — to determine the time required to adequately inspect licensed facilities — was not even conducted. (The special masters, who bring a lot of experience to the table, are Kevin Ryan, a consultant for public and private child-welfare organizations; and Francis McGovern, a Duke University law professor and past president of the Academy of Court-Appointed Masters).
However, some concrete recommendations are encouraging — like the eventual phasing out of problematic "foster group homes." These hybrid homes — unique to Texas's foster system — are licensed to house 7-12 biological and foster kids, but often exceed the limit, according to Jack's ruling.
Those homes "reside in a grey area that simultaneously provides fewer benefits than foster family homes, and fewer safeguards than congregate care facilities," Jack wrote.
The recommendations call for those homes to be phased out within 18 months of the judge's final order.
We're also glad to see that the special masters have called for a life skills program — like driver's education and help with finding housing upon aging out — that would help kids "avoid the heightened risk of homelessness and revictimization" that many emancipated foster care children now face.
Paul Yetter, the Houston attorney who worked on behalf of Children's Rights, the New York-based advocacy group that filed the lawsuit in 2011, called the recommendations "A huge step toward much-needed reform to protect these children."
He added that the report "is the result of months of intense investigation and lots of hard work, and we see it as a blueprint for reform, but it will take time, and any good reform is going to have to be thoughtful and deliberate, and that's how the judge has been approaching it." (We reached out to DFPS for comment and will update if we hear back).
Both sides will have an opportunity to respond to the recommendations before Judge Jack issues her final order, which could take months. The state, which has fought tooth and nail to be able to apply a lower standard of care than what Children's Rights was demanding, has already vowed to appeal the final order to the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals. If that court approves Jack's order, the recommendations can be implemented, and she will be able to monitor the state each step of the way.
It's a slow, frustrating, arduous process — but given how the state has historically scrambled to slap together scatterbrained "reforms" that have inevitably failed and possibly even made things worse — it's probably the only way that true improvement can be achieved.
We hope that future recommendations will include some sort of whistleblower protection for caregivers who can't get help from within the system. In August, we reported how DFPS and another agency that helps with placing kids, the Department of Aging and Disability Services — retaliated against people suspected of leaking information about children's inability to get their medication to the Houston Press, instead of actually addressing the problem.
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That story also showed how kids were being placed with adults in "dayhab" facilities operated by contractors with a history of regulatory violations, bankruptcies and civil lawsuits.
We also hope the recommendations will help decrease other questionable DFPS actions, like removing kids from stable foster homes for no clear reason — as illustrated in Lisa Falkenberg's November 5 Houston Chronicle piece about two foster moms whose 4- and 5-year old foster kids were removed after the women reported possible abuse at the hands of a family member the kids were forced by DFPS to visit.
"No question," Falkenberg, "This is abuse. At the hands of the state."
It would be nice if DFPS would cease this kind of nonsense before a court actually ordered them to.