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March 20, 2016 by Robert Franklin, Esq, Member, National Board of Directors, National Parents Organization

Late last year, Corpus Christi Federal Judge Janis Jack entered findings that the child welfare system in Texas violates the civil rights of the children it is tasked by law with protecting. Pursuant to her order, Jack will appoint a Special Master to oversee the conduct of Child Protective Services. The state has appealed the order, effectively delaying its implementation.

Of course, like most similar agencies, Texas’ acts in secret. That means we have to rely on occasional glimpses into its operations provided by things like children’s deaths, a judge’s order or an independent audit of its workings. All that has occurred in Texas, but the latest fiasco sheds even more light.  Here’s one article (Texas Tribune, 3/17/16).

Now, the headline on the Tribune piece would lead one to believe that the issue facing the agency is that a few kids per month end up spending nights in the offices of CPS, rather than with foster parents, extended family or parents.

The number of children sleeping in Child Protective Services offices shot up after an internal policy change at the agency limited child placements, according to state data released Thursday.

Sixteen children spent at least two nights sleeping in CPS offices last month, according to the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services — more than three times the number from the year before. Overall, the number of children spending multiple nights in offices with caseworkers has spiked in the last 11 months, with an average of about 10 children left in the placement of last resort each month since April 2015.

That’s a problem of course, but in a state with a whopping 30,000 kids in foster care at any given time (according to the Annie E. Casey Foundation’s Kids Count Data Center), 120 per year who have to spend a short time in an agency office do not a scandal make.

No, but there is a two-part scandal brewing. The first part is the decline in the number of foster homes available to take children. That’s significantly exacerbated by Judge Jacks’ order that requires group homes to have 24-hour surveillance in order to accept foster kids. I’m not criticizing the judge’s order, only pointing out that it limits the pool of placements for kids.

The Texas Department of Family and Protective Services concedes it is facing a critical shortage of placements for children removed from their parents.

So, what does CPS do when faced with declining numbers of places to put kids when they’re removed from their parents’ care? It sharply curtails the use of kinship care, i.e. care by members of the child’s extended family. In the Texas system, those are called “parental child safety placements.” That of course further limits placement alternatives.

But compounding that shortage is a recent policy change at the agency that has caused a dramatic increase in the number of children removed from their extended families by CPS workers — and the state appears ill equipped to handle the influx.

New restrictions limiting the agency’s ability to place children with family members outside the home caused CPS removals to grow 37 percent between January 2015 and January 2016, according to the agency.

Meanwhile, the number of children in “parental child safety placements” — also known as short-term, informal kinship placements, in which kids typically stay with extended family members outside of the home — fell 56 percent over the same time period.

The dramatic changes occurred after a new policy limited the pool of adults who qualified to take in a child in an informal kinship placement.

The agency temporarily halted all parental child safety placements last year while it studied policies to improve child safety. That came after Gov. Greg Abbott sent a letter to agency head John Specia, ordering him to step up enforcement of kinship placements. The letter followed several high-profile news reports of child deaths.

In February, the agency reinstated kinship placements but placed new restrictions on families seeking to become caretakers. The agency banned placements in households where a person had any criminal convictions or CPS history, saying the move would reduce the risk of harm to children.

So caseworkers are now in yet another bind. They’re encouraged to remove kids from parents, but the supply of alternative care for those kids has decreased. Unsurprisingly, kids end up spending the night in state office buildings, but my prediction is that there’s far worse than that to come.

The simple fact, as found by Judge Jack, the Texas child welfare system is in real trouble. No one seems to be able to get the basics correct and, more and more, no one wants to try. Recently, the Commissioner of the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services, John Specia announced his resignation from the agency. He’s the third person in as many years to come and go as head of the department overseeing CPS.

Plus, the Tribune piece informs us that head of CPS, Lisa Black is also quitting.

Who can blame them? Who would want to preside over the slow-motion train wreck that is the Texas CPS? One look at the Stephen Group’s report from two years ago would tell even a casual observer that the agency is a mess that would challenge Hercules to clean up. With a 26% per annum turnover of personnel and policy books running to hundreds of pages of often contradictory information, CPS is a dysfunctional agency. Here’s the piece I did on the report.

Will the special master appointed by Judge Jacks do any better? Who knows? On one hand that person likely would have power that a political appointment may well lack. On the other hand, an outsider may find his/her ability to make change thwarted by bureaucratic foot dragging.

What’s known all too well though is that no good news ever seems to emanate from the Texas CPS. And Judge Jacks’ summary still rings in our ears:

She also found that the state’s long-term foster care violated children’s civil rights, often leaving children "more damaged than when they entered."

It’s a statement that could be made about foster kids around the world stuck in systems, not unlike the one in the Lone Star State.

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