Head of State's Beleaguered Foster Care System Abruptly Resigns

Three months after a federal judge ruled that the Texas foster care system has turned a blind eye to the suffering of thousands of children, the head of the Department of Family and Protective Services has stepped down.

The department announced the resignation of John Specia Jr., the department's seventh commissioner since 2004, on the afternoon of March 4, with little explanation. Specia, who held the position since December 2012, will serve through the end of May.

In the press release, Health and Human Services Executive Commissioner Chris Taylor called Specia a "dynamic leader," saying that "his career will always be defined by his commitment to children, preventing child abuse and making Texas a safer place."

The release also contained a statement from Specia: β€œIt has been an honor every day working with the dedicated public servants at DFPS. I never cease to be amazed at the way our team fights for our kids and vulnerable adults, no matter the circumstances. I know they will continue to put at-risk Texans first as the HHS system transforms itself in the coming months and years."

The press release seems to have been written in an alternate universe, one where U.S. District Court Judge Janis Jack did not write that the department showed a "systemic willingness to put children in mortal harm's way." 

Jack's ruling came four years after New York-based advocacy group Children's Right sued the department, claiming that state officials violated the constitutional rights of 12,000 foster children classified under "Permanent Managing Conservatorship," essentially languishing in the state's custody until they turn 18. 

Jack wrote that these children were stuck in a system where "rape, abuse, psychotropic medication, and instability are the norm."

The judge often expressed frustration and astonishment over the actions of the state's expert witnesses, including psychologist Edwin Basham, who violated her orders and impeached himself on the stand. Another department official, Jane Burstain, tried to manipulate data about caseworkers' workloads and how certain child fatalities were classified. (The state has appealed the ruling).

Attorneys for Children's Rights, including Houston's Paul Yetter, unearthed a mountain of evidence showing shoddy investigations into abuse allegations, including an internal study that found a 75 percent error rate β€” a study that also showed that eight kids were left in their abusers' care even after their allegations were confirmed.

We asked department spokesman Patrick Crimmins why Specia resigned, and what impact this may have on the changes that Jack ordered in her findings. We also asked if Specia would be the only official to step down in the wake of the ruling, or if Basham and Burstain might be next.

Unfortunately, Crimmins β€” a state employee whose job is to provide information to the public on how people who work for the public are doing their jobs β€” wasn't in a talking mood. Crimmins took particular umbrage to our question ("Question #5") about what he thought were Specia's "greatest achievements." Here's what he told us in an email:

Your coverage of our issues has been so biased that I just don't have the interest in trying to correct any of your insinuations disguised as questions, below. Your lame attempt at balance (Question #5) is particularly stark, asking me to prove that a man who has devoted his life and career to child welfare is worthy of any praise in your publication. It must have been hard to even write that one.

Please report whatever you would like about Judge Specia's announcement. You will do that anyway, regardless what I might say. 
At trial, Specia said that he wasn't aware that the department didn't keep a formal accounting of child-on-child abuse, saying, "I couldn't tell you what we track and what we don't track."

He also said he didn't tell the department's advisory board about the internal study showing the 75 percent error rate in investigations, saying, "They don't have the right to see confidential information." 

However, Jack also wrote in her ruling that "Specia's career in child welfare and public service is extensive and commendable." She wrote that he "helped establish the Texas Supreme Court's Children's Commissions, as well as various Child Protection Courts throughout Texas." 

She also cited his 2014 Texas Appleseed Award "for his impact on improving the lives of Texas's most vulnerable children." 
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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