Texas Disses Experts' Recommendations on Fixing Foster Care System

State officials are objecting to recommendations on how to overhaul the foster care system in Texas, arguing that court-appointed experts' plans are vague and ineffective.

In the latest motion to be filed in a lengthy class-action lawsuit over the treatment of some 12,000 kids in the state's care, lawyers for the state asked U.S. District Court Judge Janis Jack to reject a list of suggestions filed by independent special masters earlier this month.

The recommendations came nearly a year after Jack's scathing rebuke of the state's mistreatment of a class of children relegated to Permanent Managing Conservatorship — essentially, kids for whom the state has ceased adoption efforts.

The suit was filed in 2011 by New York-based advocacy group Children's Rights. In the run-up to trial, state officials claimed that Children's Rights was holding officials to too high a standard. Lawyers for the state cautioned Jack to "resist the temptation to augment the substantive reach of the Fourteenth Amendment." Ultimately, the state has argued that the Constitution does not afford these kids an "unlimited" right to be free from the risk of harm — so why even aim that high?

In a 13-page outline, the special masters called for increased training and transparency, the installation of landlines that connect to a 24-hour emergency hotline in certain residential facilities, and life-skills classes to help kids in their transition out of foster care once they age out.

But in this week's motion, lawyers for the state argue that the outline is "overbroad" and based on a distorted reading of the court record. They also argue that, by asking the Department of Family and Protective Services to conduct many of its own management studies, the special masters are not doing their job.

The motion also finds particular fault with the special masters' recommendation on how DFPS has caseworkers count their workload; instead of counting the number of children a caseworker oversees, DFPS has caseworkers count by "stages," resulting in an amorphous accounting that DFPS officials couldn't even explain at trial.

The bizarre caseload counting method was something that neither plaintiffs nor defendants could adequately make sense of at trial. In trying to clarify the system to Jack, former DFPS official Jane Burstain admitted on the stand that she manipulated her numbers by including employees who didn't actually exist.

As Jack wrote in her December 2015 ruling, "The Court can only imagine the actual figures if make-believe people are no longer counted."

But the objections don't stop there: Attorney General Ken Paxton and Governor Greg Abbott seem to think bedlam would ensue if caseworkers helped make sure kids know how to drive before aging out. They also took issue with a recommendation that all foster homes have a landline and a clearly posted sign with the number for the 24-hour emergency hotline.

"Adding costs will discourage people from becoming foster parents," the lawyers argue, suggesting that the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services is perfectly okay with entrusting the health and welfare of vulnerable children to grown-ups who are too cheap to install a phone line.

While completely expected, the state's objections are a sad reminder of the lack of humility and compassion displayed by Abbott and Paxton, two men who purport to put a premium on human life. The Department of Family and Protective Services has thus far been incapable of implementing any sort of reform, even though such plans are robustly announced in hollow press releases every few years.

Texans don't need to look any further than how Child Protective Services personnel in Houston treated the former foster child known in the lawsuit as "M.D." After she ran away the second time from her group home in November 2013, police found the 16-year-old girl wandering in a park and took her to an emergency CPS shelter. According to court records, the girl told the staff that she was high on crack and had to hurry back to her pimp. So, after 15 minutes, the staff let her go.

That was two years after the state was sued in federal court — a lawsuit for which  "M.D." was the lead plaintiff.

Arguing that the Department of Family and Protective Services can repair itself, while at the same time turning over the 16-year-old lead plaintiff to her pimp while high on crack, is what we call chutzpah. It's apparently good enough for Greg Abbott and Ken Paxton. It shouldn't be.
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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