The state's foster care system isn't as bad as a federal judge's damning ruling makes it out to be, the former head of the beleagured Texas Department of Family and Protective Services said on NPR's Texas Standard show this week.
John Specia, who resigned in the wake of a class-action lawsuit over the state's shoddy treatment of 12,000 children in its custody, said the state is right to appeal Judge Janis Jack's finding that the state is depriving foster children of their constitutional rights. Specia was the department's seventh commissioner since 2004.
"Technically, I don't believe that the system is unconstitutional," Specia, a former judge, told host David Brown. "Does it have problems? Does it need to be fixed? Absolutely."
Specia also said his resignation was not related to Jack's ruling, saying he had stayed longer than the two-year commitment he gave when taking the job.
"It's a very difficult job," Specia said. "It is the most interesting and most challenging job I've ever had. It is a 24-7 job, and frankly, you get tired."
And frankly, we wonder why the department accepted a commissioner who only wanted to stick around for two years. We would have loved the opportunity to talk to Specia about that and other matters, but the department's spokesperson, Patrick Crimmins, has made it abundantly clear that DFPS believes the Houston Press is too biased to be granted interviews. (Crimmins again declined our request to speak with Specia for this story.)
During the 2014 trial in Corpus Christi, Specia said many things that shocked us, including the fact that he didn't think a citizen advisory board should be told that the department allowed eight children to remain with their abusers.
Specia told Jack that he attended the trial on the days he wasn't scheduled to testify because "I wanted to hear, and I will look at problems and challenges in my agency and address them directly."
That was in December 2014, two years after Specia took the job; three years after Children's Rights filed suit; and at least two decades after these deeply entrenched problems were officially brought to light.
Specia also admitted that he didn't know his department failed to track child-on-child abuse, saying, "We track thousands of things, and I don't know — I couldn't tell you what we track and what we don't track..."
Specia said child-on-child abuse was something "I'm going to take a look at." Hopefully, between the time he learned about this serious issue and the time he resigned because he was "tired," Specia managed to look into it.
In his three years with the department, Specia did not institute workload caps for caseworkers, so that those employees — one of the most important figures in a foster child's life — can spend more than 26 percent of their time on children they're supposed to protect, and less time on paperwork. Workload caps are an integral component of Jack's order, but it's unclear why it took a judge's decree, when professional standards have for years recommended common-sense standards.
When asked what his advice would be for the next commissioner, Specia said, "Recognize how many great people we have working for this agency, and continue to give them the tools and the resources to do their job."
We're not exactly sure what that means. Specia could have been a little more direct — perhaps saying how the next commissioner should be more aggressive in penalizing facilities and homes with repeat violations, and should not wait until multiple children die before revoking a facility's license. Or how the department's 75 percent error rate in investigating abuse claims is unacceptable and must be fixed.
Ultimately, in his eight minutes on Texas Standard, Specia said nothing. Which, after his legacy as commissioner, is about all we could expect.
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