More than a year has passed since U.S. District Court Judge Janis Jack ordered Texas officials to fix the state's broken foster care system, writing that she would "not tolerate the systemic willingness to put children in mortal harm's way."
In a blistering 260-page ruling, Jack found that the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services violated the constitutional rights of roughly 12,000 children in the department's "permanent managing conservatorship" classification — a dressed-up way of labeling the kids officials have given up on.
Instead of taking the ruling to heart, Governor Greg Abbott and Attorney General Ken Paxton have pushed back, seeking injunctions and vowing to file a final appeal. State legislators have been relatively silent, but last month, Rep. Chris Turner of Tarrant County sent Paxton a letter asking him to call off the dogs.
"Since the ruling, you and your office have inexplicably spent an inordinate amount of time, energy, and money on pointless and unsuccessful appeals and objections," Turner wrote.
He continued: "You persist in your legal gamesmanship, in effect delaying the implementation of needed reforms, squandering precious taxpayer money ($7 million and counting) and worst of all, perpetuating a dangerous and flawed system."
Citing pending litigation, a spokesperson for Paxton's office declined to comment. A spokesperson for Turner's office said the legislator never received a response, but it's possible the letter got lost among all the thank-you notes from all those satisfied Servergy investors Paxton courted.
Wanting to double-check Turner's $7 million estimate, we sought an exact dollar amount from Paxton spokeswoman Kayleigh Lovvorn, who told us to file a public records request, which we did. We figure our chances of getting a response is about as good as Turner's. [Note: Well, we stand corrected — the AG's Office public information coordinator got back to us on March 23. We had asked for the legal expenses incurred since Jack's December 2015 ruling, but the figures include September/October as well. The total from then is a mere $208,006 — which, when you're trying to stifle the constitutional rights of kids, is a real bargain for taxpayers].
This battle began in 2011, when a New York-based advocacy group, Children's Right, filed its lawsuit. The torch of obstinance has been passed from governor to governor and attorney general to attorney general, who are immune to the real-life consequences that plague thousands of children. Since the suit was filed, the lead plaintiff, who was thrust into the system at age ten, aged out as an adult. (In an earlier feature story detailing the girl's history in the system, we referred to her as Rosario).
Like many in her position, Rosario had run away several times, although state officials — her legal guardians — neither noticed nor cared. At age 16, Houston police found her dazed in a park, and drove her to a Children's Protective Services shelter, where, according to court records, the staff let her leave after 15 minutes. She said she was high on crack and had to get back to her pimp.
This is the standard of care that Paxton and Abbott have fought to defend, even as Rosario was moved 19 times in seven years, served up to predatory staff in residential treatment centers, drugged in psychiatric hospitals, and locked up in juvenile detention. As befitting a system that does nothing to prepare its wards for life on the outside, Rosario graduated to grown-up jail. In April 2015, she attacked her mother — fresh from her latest prison stint — and was sentenced to 90 days in jail. Seven months later, she got 30 days for assaulting a security guard.
In June 2016, about six months after Judge Jack's ruling, and a little over a year after she aged out of foster care, Rosario got her stiffest sentence yet. It appears from court records that at least two police officers were arresting Rosario for theft and assault when she spit on one officer and tried to take the other's gun. She was sentenced to three years.
In his letter to Paxton, Turner noted that "there is bipartisan consensus in the legislature that serious and immediate reforms are needed in [CPS] and the foster care system." But, Turner wrote, "your actions do not contribute to this effort; in fact, they distract from it."
Turner ends by admitting what is plainly to obvious to anyone not named Ken Paxton or Greg Abbott: At least 12,000 children in the system "have been failed by our state government."
If either of those men want to see firsthand the aftermath of their appeals, they could always arrange to visit with Rosario, who's in a prison outside Waco, with a projected release date in April 2019. Maybe by then, too, Paxton will have found the time to explain to Turner why it's necessary to preserve the system that put her there.
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