There’s Little Outrage for 12,000 Kids Suffering in the Texas Foster Care System

There’s Little Outrage for 12,000 Kids Suffering in the Texas Foster Care System

Houston police found the 16-year-old foster child in a park in early November 2013, just a few days after she ran away from a residential treatment center in northwest Houston.

Rosario, a baby-faced, black-haired girl who carried a little extra weight, said she’d been selling her body for money. The cops returned her to the center, Guardian Angels. According to court records, she felt tired and defeated. She was hundreds of miles away from her family in Corpus Christi. Her mother had just been released from prison after a seven-year stint for drug possession. Rosario just wanted to go home.

Rosario (not her real name) called her guardian ad litem and said, “I can’t do this anymore. I can’t take it. I’m tired. I want to go back to Corpus.”

“Don’t give up,” Sarah Klager told the teen, who’d been under her watch for years, as she criss-crossed the state. Fresh from a facility in San Antonio, where the bruises from the physical restraints had barely receded, Rosario had been at Guardian Angels — her 19th placement in seven years — for less than a week before she bolted.

Klager told Rosario she would try to get an emergency hearing. They could plead her case to a judge. She just needed a little patience.

Rosario hung up the phone and proceeded to run away. A staff member tried to stop her, tearing the teen’s pants off in the process. But Rosario was too slippery. She got away, disappearing in her underwear.

The day before Thanksgiving, Houston police found her in a park again and drove her to an emergency Children’s Protective Services shelter. She told the staff she was high on crack and had to split. Her pimp was waiting for her.

After 15 minutes, the staff let Rosario leave. The next time authorities would have anything to do with her, it would be to put her in jail.

It’s unclear whether the staff realized Rosario was the lead plaintiff in a class-action lawsuit against the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services and Governor Greg Abbott. Filed three years prior, under Governor Rick Perry, the suit accuses officials of violating foster kids’ constitutional right to be reasonably safe from harm while in state custody.

Filed by a New York-based advocacy group called Children’s Rights, the lawsuit alleged that state officials showed deliberate indifference to the roughly 12,000 kids stuck in a gutter of DFPS known as Permanent Managing Conservatorship. These were kids who’d been written off and expected to be banished to state custody until they aged out at 18.

Children’s Rights brought similar suits in other states, and those settled before trial. But the Texas Attorney General’s Office had no intention of letting outsiders tell Texas officials how to handle kids in state care.

In late 2014, the case went to trial before U.S. District Court Judge Janis Jack in Corpus Christi. The plaintiffs argued that kids like Rosario — who, though technically a ward of the state, was still believed to be turning tricks on the street — were not an exception, but the rule.

It turned out that Jack agreed. In December 2015, the judge issued a blistering 260-page ruling that said the state had for years turned a blind eye to internal failures in the system, leaving the kids in its care in repeated exposure to physical, sexual and psychological abuse.

“The Court does not understand, nor tolerate, the systemic willingness to put children in mortal harm’s way,” Jack wrote.

She ruled that a special master must be appointed to oversee a radical reformation of the department. Seemingly for the first time in its history, the Department of Family and Protective Services was being held accountable.

Evidence at trial showed that the department had a 75 percent error rate in investigating abuse claims, and didn’t even track child-on-child abuse, resulting in common and widespread harm. Expert state witnesses also manipulated data and violated the judge’s orders.

Texas officials of course disagreed with Jack, filing an appeal and claiming that the department is perfectly capable of fixing things on its own.

The ruling, like the lawsuit itself, has received relatively little attention from officials and the media — nothing on the level of investigations into Planned Parenthood or battles over access to abortion clinics.

Legislators and pundits, it seems, are quick to act when it comes to how the state should treat children who have not been born. But the 12,000 children who are stuck in a system in which, as Jack wrote, “rape, abuse, psychotropic medication, and instability are the norm,” there’s comparatively little outrage.

Depending on the success of the state’s appeal, or even how long an appointed special master can implement changes at DFPS, it may be too late for the kids already there.

It’s already too late for Rosario: Wherever the girl is, her latest caseworker — who never met her — can check her off the list. Rosario aged out of the system in early 2015. She’s no longer the state’s problem.

*****
A.M.’s foster parents adopted her sister, but not her.
A.M.’s foster parents adopted her sister, but not her.
Fred Harper

If foster care is triage, kids in Permanent Managing Conservatorship are the lost causes.

A 2010 report by the nonprofit group Texas Appleseed stated that, in PMC, “The attention paid to the child’s cases diminishes drastically. There is often a sense that the ‘clock stops ticking.’”

The clock stopped ticking for Rosario sometime around 2008.

According to court records, Rosario and her siblings were raised by their maternal grandparents, who died in 2005, at which point they went to live with their mom. (Rosario’s father was never in the picture.)

By 2006, Rosario’s mother went to prison for testing positive for drugs in violation of probation, and the kids went to live with their aunt. Rosario had problems there — she was violent and “threatened to report fictitious claims of abuse to CPS.”

In March 2007, at age ten, she was admitted to a psychiatric hospital, where she reported that she’d been sexually abused by an older cousin for years. Although an investigator found reason to believe the abuse occurred, there is no indication anything came of the investigation.

Rosario was released back into her aunt’s home, but continued to act out and run away. She wound up in juvenile detention, at which time her aunt said the state could keep her. She’d had enough.

From there, Rosario went to another psychiatric hospital. When her attorney ad litem, Sarah Klager, visited her, Rosario said she was scared.

“When am I going to go home?” Rosario asked, according to Klager’s testimony at trial. The girl had no idea her aunt didn’t want her back.

“Over the next five months, [she] was placed in an emergency shelter, a psychiatric hospital, and two different foster homes,” according to the ruling. She didn’t last long in foster homes because of “self-harming behaviors.”

Rosario apparently held out hope that she could return to her mother when she got out of prison. When Rosario learned that DFPS terminated her mother’s parental rights in July 2010, she “became depressed and distanced herself from her peers.” She tried to rip pieces of baseboard from a wall in order to cut herself. She attacked an elderly teacher. She ran away, only to return the next day, telling the staff she’d been raped.

After a year at the same residential treatment center, she accused a staff member of sexually abusing her and her roommate. Her allegation was ruled out because the girls waited a year to say anything.

In 2011, Rosario was transferred to a residential treatment center called Hector Garza, in San Antonio. There, she and her roommate accused another girl of sexually abusing them; this, too, was ruled out. But she and other residents also accused a staff member of sexually harassing them.

Supervisors opened an investigation, but dropped the matter after the staff member quit.

In August 2011, Rosario was arrested for assaulting another teacher; while in juvenile detention, she asked not to be returned to Hector Garza. She told police she didn’t feel safe there.

Fortunately, Rosario was transferred to another facility, where she slept in a trailer with nine other girls. They all shared a shower and toilet. Her first week there, Rosario accused a staff member of rape. According to Jack’s ruling, Rosario’s caseworker was aware that “sexual abuse [was] not new at the facility.”

Rosario’s alleged rapist left early on the day in question, complaining of a blood sugar issue. After a cursory investigation, he was allowed to keep his job on the condition that he avoid the female unit. He declined.

Rosario bled for two weeks after the attack, but a doctor chalked it up to vaginitis. The results of a rape kit were never released to Rosario, her caseworker or Klager. By the time an investigator asked staff to retrieve Rosario’s clothes and bedsheets for testing, they’d already been laundered.

According to Children’s Rights’ lawsuit, stories like Rosario’s were nothing new.

The problems that plagued the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services at the time of the lawsuit had been there for decades, which was precisely the point: Study after study, whether conducted by the department or by outside agencies, showed that the department was out of control.

With every new report, each new DFPS commissioner — seven different ones between 2004 and 2015 — claimed that this time would be different. In 2009, Governor Perry and legislators commissioned a study to “take a hard look at the Texas foster care system.” After its ten-month review, it proposed 14 recommendations, 11 of which were identical to a study Governor George W. Bush commissioned in 1996.

As Jack wrote, the department “has no institutional memory.”

So, it was hardly surprising, she wrote, that Texas “commissions full-scale audits of its foster care system every five to ten years, always reaching the same conclusions, but never producing improvement.”

Studies released by The Texas Sunset Commission and a private firm, The Stephen Group, only illustrated the point, highlighting problems that had been raised and ignored in the past: There was the slavish devotion to paperwork — clear evidence that the department was “doing more compliance than care.” This was only compounded by the department’s “inherently reactive” approach to problems, which caused “a continuing cycle of crisis.”

The problem of overworked caseworkers fed itself: It created high turnover, leading to ever-increasing caseloads. (Because children are constantly moved around the state, they are often seen by secondary “I See You” workers.) Nationwide, the generally accepted standards set limits of between 15 and 17 children per caseworker.

The department has no standards; there is no maximum number of children a caseworker can have, and it’s often too difficult to tell how many children a caseworker has because workloads aren’t counted by individual kids. They’re counted by “stages” — i.e., at what point in the permanency process a child or family is in.

It’s a counting process unique to Texas, possibly because it makes no sense. As Jack wrote, experts on both sides “could barely understand the stage-counting approach, let alone explain it to the Court.”

It’s unclear how much of an advocate Rosario’s caseworker was for her. But for Rosario’s entire time in the system, her ad litem, Klager, tried to do her best.

When Klager visited Rosario in October 2011, she was appalled by the living conditions: the trailer reeked of mildew and urine. Rosario had multiple self-inflicted cuts on her arms and legs, with an especially deep one on a wrist. Klager would later testify that the staff had retaliated against Rosario for her rape outcry.

Although Rosario claimed to like this facility more than Hector Garza, she tried to run away in November 2011. After her attempt was thwarted, the staff punished her by making her stand barefoot on a milk crate for hours.

Incredibly, by February 2013, Rosario progressed to the point where she was deemed fit for a foster home. It wouldn’t last.

*****

One of the most alarming revelations to come out of the lawsuit was an internal Department review showing that its investigators have a 75 percent error rate in determining whether or not abuse has occurred.

The study, never released publicly, was included in the mountains of documents DFPS turned over to Children’s Rights in discovery.

In January 2014, the Department’s Performance Management Unit — a sort of internal auditor — looked at 111 cases that were closed in the previous year under the designation “Unable to Determine,” meaning investigators didn’t have enough information to go on.

The idea was to revisit the allegations and see if they had not only been properly investigated by the licensing employees in the field, but carefully reviewed by their supervisors. (The other possible outcomes for investigations are that evidence suggests there was no abuse — “Ruled Out” — or reason to believe abuse occurred — “RTB.”)

In many cases, investigators did not speak with the children or other potentially valuable witnesses.

There is no indication that, once department officials realized how miserable their investigators were when it came to “Unable to Determine” rulings, they examined the roughly 92 percent of thousands of allegations a year they classified as “Ruled Out.” The information was simply buried. (In an email, one investigator explained the aversion to substantiating abuse claims like this: “No autopsy, no RTB.”)

Also buried was this: When the Performance Management Unit finally substantiated eight of the abuse allegations, the department did not remove those children.

This was revealed on the stand in December 2014 by Paul Morris, the department’s assistant commissioner of child care licensing, who had no background in child welfare, but who did have 18 years of regulatory experience with the U.S. Coast Guard.

Morris explained that investigators returned to those homes and facilities to check whether there had been any additional outcries from those eight kids. There weren’t. So investigators closed the cases and left the children with their abusers.

“Who on Earth is going to make an outcry if you’ve done nothing for a year?” a flustered Jack asked Morris. “You expect them to keep complaining?”

Morris didn’t respond.

“Oh my goodness,” Jack said, exasperated. “I think we’ve just got to take an afternoon break.”

The day after Morris testified, Jack heard from a former foster child, Crystal, who shed light on one way abuse investigations failed.

Crystal and her three brothers entered the system when she was five, and the siblings were rarely kept together. When she was eight, Crystal and an older brother were placed with an aunt, who also had adopted a 16-year-old boy named Jeremy.

On the stand, and in an interview with the Press, Crystal explained how Jeremy got his kicks: sodomy and humiliation. He constantly raped Crystal, and she distinctly remembers one time he stabbed her knee with a sewing needle. Once, he made her eat cereal off the floor.

But it was especially difficult when Jeremy forced Crystal’s brother to beat her. He told her brother to punch her in the face, or else Jeremy would punch him.

“At first, he would try to, like, take it,” Crystal said of her brother, “and I knew he meant well…The first eight or nine times, like, my brother took the punch or the kick or whatever it was, and then he got tired of being beat up on.”

Crystal remembered how her brother had a beautiful singing voice. She really thought he could make a living off it. He’s in prison now, doing 25 years for a home invasion.

“Some of these...people, they treat, you know, children in the system like savages,” Crystal said. “If the state of Texas were to look at children as, oh, this is a potential doctor, this is a potential lawyer, this is a potential teacher...they would see better statistics.”

Jeremy punched harder than Crystal’s brother: Once, he blackened her eyes and put her in the hospital.

She remembers adults asking her what had happened, but she doesn’t remember if they were hospital staff or from the department.

Every time they asked her questions, she said, either Jeremy or her aunt was there. They made sure they were seen giving Crystal donuts and coloring books. This would be a recurring theme in Crystal’s years in the system: An “I See You” worker would ask her, while in the presence of her abusers, how she was being treated.

When she was still eight, she was transferred to a home with a 14-year-old foster girl who dragged her to the park whenever the girl wanted to see her adult boyfriend. Once the man brought a friend. Crystal fellated him behind some bushes.

Around three years later, Crystal was adopted by a couple who couldn’t have their own children. The dad was actually nice. Didn’t rape her once. Took her to the movies. But her adoptive mom told her how ungrateful she was, that she ought to realize no one else wanted her, that she was fortunate that this couple swooped in to scrape her off the ground.

Later, Crystal’s new parents’ prayers were answered: They had a child of their own. They didn’t need her anymore. At age 13, Crystal was sent by her parents to the Boys & Girls Harbor residential treatment center in La Porte, where she spent the next four years. She technically wasn’t a foster child — her adoptive parents never terminated their rights — but she lived like one.

Crystal had the first of four children at age 17, and for a while, they lived on the street. Eventually, a kind woman took them in, just as she’d taken in a handful of other teenage girls. Crystal’s first month was free. So was the cocaine. Then she found out she had to contribute to household finances. The first time she was sold for money, she and the woman’s 15-year-old daughter entertained a man at a motel.

Crystal eventually escaped and got clean. She lived for a while in housing provided by a Conroe nonprofit called Angel Reach. The goal of the organization, which is funded largely by church donations, is to help former foster children transition into the life on their own. Often, no one has taught these kids how to drive, how to cook, how to handle money.

After two years at Angel Reach, Crystal believed she was ready to strike out on her own. Wanting a fresh start, she moved out of Texas. She got a job at the YMCA. She works like hell to make sure her six-year-old daughter feels the opposite of how Crystal felt growing up.

“It’s not fair to be looked at like you’re just a lost cause when nobody even tried to help you to begin with, [when] they exploited you from the jump,” Crystal told the Press. “I lived my whole life being exploited by people, and how am I supposed to find self-worth?”

*****
Staff at a Houston foster care facility somehow let Rosario slip away.
Staff at a Houston foster care facility somehow let Rosario slip away.
Fred Harper

Morris, the ex-Coast Guard expert, was just one face in a colorful cast of state witnesses who, from the top down, seemed ill-prepared for trial.

For example, Department Commissioner John Specia testified that he didn’t realize until trial that his department did not keep a central accounting of child-on-child abuse, saying, “I couldn’t tell you what we track and what we don’t track.”

Jane Burstain, the department’s director of systems improvement, testified as an expert on child welfare policy. Although Burstain is not responsible for investigating child fatalities, she tried to influence the department’s findings in certain cases.

In February 2014, Burstain emailed the heads of investigation and licensing about 11 recent deaths attributed to caregiver neglect. She highlighted four cases, suggesting that “reasonable minds might disagree about whether the caregivers could have prevented the deaths.”

This included Karla Vasquez, who hung herself from a closet rod while in a residential treatment center in 2013, about one month shy of her 13th birthday. Even though a staff member failed to check on Vasquez every 15 minutes, per policy, Burstain questioned whether this was an instance of caregiver neglect.

At trial, Specia testified that he had “no idea” why Burstain intervened in a licensing matter, when that was not her job.

Jack, however, had an idea: “The Court finds that Burstain was attempting to manipulate the State’s child fatality statistics.” (Save for Jack’s bench slap, Burstain was never disciplined by the court, and there’s no record of her being disciplined by the department.)

Burstain’s manipulations didn’t end there. When asked to calculate the average number of children per caseworker, Burstain came up with a number based on nonexistent workers.

As Jack wrote, “DFPS’ data already shows excessive caseloads. The Court can only imagine the actual figures if make-believe people are no longer counted.”

Perhaps the most startling testimony came from the department’s expert psychologist, Edwin Basham, under department contract for 25 years. Basham’s job in the lawsuit was to prove not only that none of the named plaintiffs were harmed while in the state’s care, but that they were not representative of all 12,000 kids in PMC.

“They’re a very select group, an unusual group, with a lot of unique characteristics, and you couldn’t really generalize from those children into any other larger group of children,” Basham said.

Both Basham and the psychologist hired by Children’s Rights, William Carter, interviewed many of the named plaintiffs. Jack told both psychologists that they were not to share any findings with the children, for their own well-being.

For example, a 17-year-old plaintiff identified as A.M. did not need to know that Carter believed the girl was unprepared “for adulthood, for marriage, family life, social settings” or employment.

In her ten years in foster care, A.M. cycled through nine schools, 16 primary and secondary caseworkers, and 21 placements throughout Texas — seven of those in psychiatric hospitals. The girl had been in the state’s care since she was seven, after her father went to death row and her mother went on trial for murder. She and her younger sister were placed with foster parents who didn’t want A.M. They kept the sister, changing her first name, and asked that A.M. be sent to a group home.

Her guardian ad litem would later testify that A.M. never recovered from the rejection, and was disruptive and often violent. She was deemed unfit for placement in a foster home, and when she was 12, the department formally ceased all attempts at adoption.

Despite Jack’s ruling about not sharing findings with the kids, Basham asked A.M. if she agreed with Carter’s opinion that she was “drastically unprepared for future marriage or family life.”

Jack scolded the shrink, writing, “For a fragile youth such as A.M., who already struggles to trust other people, Basham’s conduct is devastating.”

In her ruling, Jack wrote that Basham impeached himself on the stand, stating that he changed his account of interviewing A.M. before and during trial.

Plaintiffs’ attorney Paul Yetter, who didn’t conduct a cross-examination so much as a vivisection, told the Press he couldn’t believe Basham’s conduct.

“He’s a health-care provider, that — in order to get an edge in the investigation — told things to a young, fragile woman in his exam that were deliberately hurtful,” Yetter said. “…And it was all in the name of defending a system that hurts these children every single day.”

Basham testified that he found no evidence of psychological or emotional harm caused by the State in any of the named plaintiffs. This included a child identified as D.I., who, as an eight-year-old in a group foster home, was sodomized repeatedly by a 16-year-old while another teen acted as a lookout.

These attacks occurred in an upstairs bedroom late at night, while the man who ran the home slept on an air mattress downstairs in the living room so he could keep an eye on a chronic runaway.

D.I.’s rapist had been sexually abused by his own father, and he assaulted D.I. in the same way. D.I. was actually the teen’s second victim, but since the department doesn’t track child-on-child abuse, D.I.’s caseworker had no idea the boy was being dumped into a house with a victim who doubled as a predator. Fortunately, the boy was adopted in 2012. Unfortunately, he stuck his hands down the pants of his adoptive mother’s five-year-old granddaughter. Sent to a psych ward in Bellaire, he was diagnosed, according to Jack’s ruling, “as a sexual abuse victim and perpetrator.”

Considering these circumstances, it seemed as if Basham might want to reconsider his opinion that none of the named plaintiffs were harmed in state care.

“Is that still correct?” Jack asked Basham while he was on the stand. “Do you want to change that under oath now?”

“I would want to change it, your Honor,” Basham replied.

“…So you didn’t tell the truth the first time in your deposition and now you want to change it?” Jack asked.

“I think there was a misunderstanding,” Basham said.

In her ruling, Jack wrote that Basham “showed an overall indifference to A.M.’s well-being, professional standards, and the truth.”

She ultimately disregarded the psychologist’s reports and testimony, and lamented, “The Court…is all too aware that Basham has long provided testimony on behalf of the State of Texas.”

*****

In February 2013, after a year without reprimands, Rosario moved from Houston to a foster home in Nueces County.

That same month, Rosario’s mother was released from prison and was staying with family. For the first time in years, Rosario and her mother were in the same vicinity.

“Well, I am excited,” Rosario’s mother posted on her Facebook that month. “Tomorrow I go see the judge to see if I can get contact visits with my daughter. Haven’t seen her in 8 years. I am blessed for a second chance.”

There would be no contact visits. Rosario lasted less than a week at her foster home.

Klager later testified that 16-year-old Rosario had become so institutionalized that she had trouble adjusting to a foster home, and to the social mores of a public school — the first school outside a residential treatment center she’d attended in six years.

“I remember her saying that she needed to make Valentine cards to pass out to her classmates,” Klager testified, “because she was still a ten-year-old girl in her mind.”

Eventually, Rosario assaulted another child at the home, an actual ten-year-old girl, who spilled the beans and told the foster parents that Rosario was having sex with an adult. It’s unclear from the record who this man was.

After ten days in a psych ward, Rosario was shuttled to another foster home, “where she tried to run away daily,” according to Jack’s ruling. She also started cutting herself again, resulting in another trip to the hospital.

Rosario wound up back at Hector Garza because DFPS didn’t know where else to stick her. Most residential treatment centers denied her because kids with a history of crying rape are liabilities.

But in May 2013, she got into an altercation with a female staff member who restrained her “by placing her face-down on the ground and pressing her elbow on [Rosario’s] back, making it difficult to breathe.” When Rosario’s “I See You” worker saw her two days later, she noticed bruises on Rosario’s neck and a six-inch scratch on her face from the staff member’s ring.

Then, in September 2013, it looked like her prayers might be answered: A Nueces County court ordered that Rosario be returned to her mother.

Her mother was now granted contact visits. But before she was granted custody, she had to find appropriate housing, and she needed copies of Rosario’s birth certificate and social security card.

The department refused to provide them.

“Internal emails suggest that CPS did not want to return [Rosario] to her mother because the caseworkers did not believe that the mother could handle [her] and that the mother was a ‘stressor’…,” Jack wrote
When Rosario learned that the department was not cooperating with her mother, she slipped into a depression and attacked a fellow resident. In a separate incident, when Rosario was unable to contact her mother in late October, she flew into a rage. She “destroyed furniture in her room and threatened another resident.” She would have to go.

That’s when she was moved to Guardian Angels in Houston, whose staff were not informed of Rosario’s history of running away.

That’s when Rosario ran off and was later allowed to leave a CPS emergency shelter, just before Thanksgiving 2013. Department officials had no idea where she was until June 2014, when the Texas Center for the Missing notified them that a girl matching Rosario’s description had been arrested. She was charged with giving a false name to police officers.

The Texas Center for the Missing wasn’t sure if it was Rosario, but it sent the girl’s mugshot to Rosario’s newest caseworker, who had never met Rosario, and who had no idea what she looked like. When Klager saw the picture, she positively identified Rosario.

Although DFPS now had an address for the girl, the department would not pick her up without police assistance.

Jack wrote: “In an appalling Catch-22, the Houston Police Department would not pick up [Rosario] until DFPS found placement for her, and DFPS could not find placement until [Rosario] was in state custody.”

Klager testified that, after about two weeks of pressuring Rosario’s caseworker, someone went to the address. The person who answered the door said she didn’t live there anymore.

“And that’s the last we’ve heard,” Klager said.

A little over a month after Klager testified, Rosario’s whereabouts were unknown.

*****

The state’s central argument is this: It’s preposterous to claim — and evidence did not show — that the named plaintiffs in the case are representative examples of all 12,000 kids in Permanent Managing Conservatorship.

State lawyers argued that one cannot prove deliberate indifference based on a handful of sob stories. Moreover, they claimed, the department had not displayed conduct that “shocks the conscience,” which is necessary to prove a violation of due process.

Furthermore, DFPS meets most safety and permanency standards required by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. The state’s performance is “frequently higher, sometimes mid-pack, and never egregiously lower” than that of foster care systems around the country.

Lawyers for the department also noted that the latest improvement plan, called “CPS Transformation,” was already addressing issues such as caseworker burdens. Of course, as Jack noted, Transformation was rolled out only six weeks before trial.

Before there was Transformation, there was “Foster Care Redesign,” an initiative launched in 2010 that would reform how the department contracted with child placement agencies. The plan called for “Single Source Continuum Contractors” — agencies that could meet the needs of all children in a particular region, so kids wouldn’t have to endure multiple relocations, hundreds of miles away from their home communities.

But five years later, Jack noted, “the program is active in only two percent of the counties in Texas, covering 800 children.” The department has contracted with only two Single Source providers, but Jack wrote that there was enough performance data available only for one.

Originally, the department planned to give the contract to Lutheran Social Services. But that agency ran into public relations problems in October 2013. At trial, Kaysie Reinhardt, the director of Foster Care Redesign, would testify only that the Lutheran contract was pulled because of a “licensing action.” Yetter, the Children’s Rights attorney, couldn’t get Reinhardt to elaborate.

“I don’t recall the specific circumstances,” Reinhardt testified.

Yetter tried to jog her memory by showing her a newspaper article about the death of an 11-month-old girl Lutheran had placed with a foster mom whose boyfriend’s criminal record was never checked. The boyfriend lost his temper one day, put the baby on the floor and pressed on her skull so forcefully with his knee that her retinas detached.

“Does that refresh your recollection of why they were under a licensing action?” Yetter asked.

“Again,” Reinhardt insisted, “I don’t really recall the circumstances…”

Ultimately, the department gave the contract to a company called Providence. But that agency had difficulty finding placements for many children, who wound up sleeping in CPS offices. Providence backed out after 18 months, claiming a $2 million loss.

But with Transformation, described on the department’s website as “a rigorous self-improvement process,” DFPS believes it has found the solution.

Under Foster Care Redesign, the department touted a collection of “stakeholders” called the Public Private Partnership. And Transformation has its own version — the DFPS Council, a board of public citizens who meet quarterly to share recommendations on how to improve department policies.

But there’s only so much information the council is given. Department Commissioner John Specia testified at trial, for example, that the council was not informed of the study showing a 75 percent error rate in investigating abuse claims.

“They don’t have the right to see confidential information,” Specia testified. “…That is not the kind of information that I share with the council.”

Jack wrote that she would not place “blind faith” in yet another supposed reform: “Like many of DFPS’s efforts the Court heard about, Transformation is promised to work because it is ‘completely different’ than the reform efforts that came before it.”

She added, “The Court has no assurance that anything has changed. Of the two reforms to which DFPS pointed — CPS Transformation and Foster Care Redesign — one was instituted in the wake of this lawsuit, the other is an abject failure, and neither answers any of Plaintiffs’ claims.”

*****

In January 2015, Rosario was crashing at her aunt’s home in Pasadena, but it didn’t last.

The aunt posted on Facebook, late in the month, that she had to let Rosario leave because she “didn’t want to change.” (Although the named plaintiffs were identified only by their initials in court records, the Press was ultimately able to identify “Rosario.”)

“I pray to God to keep her in his hands,” she wrote.

But in April, Rosario finally got what she wanted: a reunion with her mom. It went horribly.

Court records show that Rosario attacked her mother, hitting her, pulling her hair and slamming her face into the ground. Rosario was sentenced to 90 days in jail.

Three months later, Rosario’s mother was convicted of tampering with a government record and sentenced to eight months in state jail. Rosario went back to jail herself — this time for assaulting a security guard in a Jersey Village hospital in November 2015. She was sentenced to 30 days in jail.

The Press reached out to Rosario’s family members to try to contact her for this story.

An aunt in Corpus Christi, apparently the one who gave Rosario up in 2007, didn’t return messages.
Reached by phone, Rosario’s aunt in Pasadena said the family wanted nothing more to do with her.

But a woman close to the family was able to provide some information: She told the Press via Facebook that Rosario had turned up in Corpus Christi sometime between her Houston jail stints. She’d hitched a ride with a semi driver, and the family picked her up at a Walmart.

Rosario stayed briefly with the woman, who bought her a phone and gave her some clothes. At one point, she wrote, the family tried taking Rosario to a women’s shelter, “but she had took off with a random man.”

She added, “I just know most of her family is done trying to help her, and so am I. I don’t think she deserved it. She doesn’t change her ways. She would rather be on the [street] getting money the only way she can.”

The Press also spoke briefly with Rosario’s mom when she got out of jail. She said she didn’t know where Rosario was staying — that she came and went.

On her mostly barren Facebook page, Rosario’s photos show how her hair has shortened and the weight dropped. Next to one photo, her mother posted a comment, letting her know the Press was trying to reach her for a story.

But it appears that her mother didn’t quite understand the scope of the lawsuit, or that her daughter’s story was at the center of a court order to reform the state’s foster care system. Instead, she wrote that “CPS is looking for you cause they are sueing [sic] this place you were at.”

“So they are going to give me money, if not I don’t want to see them,” Rosario responded.

Rosario’s mother said her daughter recently called her. When the woman tried calling Rosario later, she discovered the number was disconnected.

Just like that, she was gone again. 


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