Foster Care, Dead Children and Greg Abbott's Cognitive Dissonance

When it comes to protecting children, Greg Abbott just doesn't get it.

According to emails obtained by the Texas Tribune, Abbott took a personal interest in the January 2015 murder of a two-month-old girl who had been removed from her mother by Child Protective Services and placed temporarily with a family friend. Justice Hull was drowned in a bowl of water by the family friend's 14-year-old daughter, who told authorities she didn't want her mom to adopt the child. 

"In the days following the infant's death, Abbott’s aides sent dozens of emails to executives at the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services," the Trib reported, "seeking to understand how Child Protective Services had allowed Hull to live in a home where she would be murdered, and trying to determine how many other children might be at risk."

Hull's was just one of three CPS-related deaths in as many months. The Trib also reported that Abbott emailed department officials after the accidental shooting death of four-year-old Codrick McCall, and the death of three-year-old Audrey Torres, killed in a car accident caused by her drunk-driving dad. 

The Trib reported that

"The governor wrote a critical letter to Texas Department of Family and Protective Services head John Specia ordering the agency to get its act together. Unlike Hull and McCall, Torres was not in a parental child safety placement, but Abbott’s message was clear: He wanted no more tragedies.

'Abuse or neglect of our most vulnerable Texans — our children — is intolerable, and it is especially unacceptable when it happens to a child under the care umbrella of the State of Texas,' he wrote."

It was as if, for the first time, Abbott had been made aware of problems in the state foster care system. But his emails belie the fact that, as attorney general, Abbott vigorously fought a class-action lawsuit that was filed expressly to minimize the risks that thousands of foster children deal with while in the state's custody.  The state lost in December 2015, when U.S. District Court Judge Janis Jack ordered the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services to address problems that had been dodged for decades.  

That lawsuit was filed in 2011 by the New York-based advocacy group Children's Rights, after state officials decided to take their chances in court rather than let out-of-towners tell them the best way to fix physical, sexual and psychological abuse in the foster care system. 

Among other things, Abbott's office argued in 2012 that children in its care do not have a "federal constitutional right to reside in foster group homes that are compliant with 'accepted professional standards.'" 

In fighting the Children's Rights lawsuit, Abbott's team of lawyers did everything to shirk responsibility for children who were raped, beaten, placed in dilapidated trailers, and hog-tied and thrown in closets to suffocate. Abbott's team worked their hardest to find any loophole, statute, precedent and exemption that would relieve the state of the apparently overwhelming burden of protecting children. The lawsuit even turned up an internal review showing that department heads knowingly left children with their abusers. That review was promptly buried. 

While Abbott and his crew did what they could to cloak themselves in plausible deniability, the Department of Family and Protective Services' own witnesses did whatever they could to help — one impeached himself on the stand; another fudged caseworker data.

For four years, Abbott tried to preserve the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services' status quo as attorney general, and he's continuing as governor. Last week, officials filed a motion against Jack's court-appointed special masters, who are tasked with nailing down the details of Jack's broad-brush demands. 

In a rather bizarre argument, the state contends that Jack — the judge whom the state vehemently disagrees with — knows the particulars better than the special masters, so she should come up with a plan on her own. 

Paul Yetter, the Houston attorney who worked on behalf of Children's Rights, told the Houston Press, "The judge wants the very best advice she can get, and the state should welcome that, if they're serious about fixing the system."

But the real kicker is this: The state also argues that Jack applied the wrong constitutional standard when it comes to how much the state owes the children in its care. Simply put, officials argue that Jack placed the bar too high — demanding too much safety for foster children.

Jack's standard called for these kids to "be free from an unreasonable risk of harm," but here's what Abbott and Attorney General Ken Paxton are more comfortable with: The state only owes foster children the "right to personal security and reasonably safe living conditions." 

The state also takes issue with Jack's apparently bananas definition of "harm," arguing that the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services is not "strictly liable for the psychological well-being and emotional development of every child in foster care." These kids are already so damaged, the state argues, that officials shouldn't be expected to address the psychological and emotional trauma of every last one. 

John Wittman, a spokesman for Abbott, told the Trib in an email that the governor “will continue to work aggressively with other leaders in Texas to improve the services DFPS provides to the vulnerable children entrusted to the care of the Lone Star State."

Given Abbott's track record thus far, and the state's continued insistence on lowering the bar when it comes to these "vulnerable children," that statement is not only risible, it's baseless. The words are as shallow as the bowl of water used to drown Justice Hull. 

At trial, in 2014, an attorney ad litem for an eight-year-old child named in the Children's Rights lawsuit testified about visiting her client in a residential treatment center. He was the youngest kid there.

Anna Ricker said the boy was "in a room with a bed in the middle of the room, and the walls were cinderblock and white. And in his closet were winter clothes. And it was summer. And the only thing he wanted from me was a hug and a photo of his sister...He said, 'They won't touch me here. They can't touch me here.'"

Based on years of motions filed by Abbott and Paxton, on behalf of the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services, that boy has it good enough. 
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Contributor Craig Malisow covers crooks, quacks, animal abusers, elected officials, and other assorted people for the Houston Press.
Contact: Craig Malisow