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November 1, 2019 by Robert Franklin, JD, Member, National Board of Directors

The State of Texas is up to its old tricks again (Dallas Morning News, 10/23/19).  That is, it’s stonewalling a federal judge who’s ordered it to make extensive reforms to its child protective system.  Four years ago, Judge Janis Jack found that Texas Child Protective Services routinely violated the civil rights of the children in its care.

That finding plus an earlier audit that found stratospheric levels of caseworker turnover and individual horror stories of children dying in foster care while caseworkers struggled with caseloads up to five times industry standards finally embarrassed lawmakers into making long-needed change. 

Specifically, the State of Texas spent money.  I know that’s hard to believe, but the state raised average caseworker salaries by $12,000 per year, no small sum.  That was in an effort to keep enough of them on the job to actually protect kids.  No word yet on how that’s working, but I suspect it’s having an effect.

Still, according to a Motion for Contempt filed by plaintiffs in the federal lawsuit, the state is resisting other important changes ordered by Jack.

Plaintiffs in a long-running legal battle over Texas foster care have asked a federal judge to hold the state in contempt of court, citing in a motion many “false statements” about nighttime watches of kids and a recent blown deadline for crafting a workload study.

The Department of Family and Protective Services has been “utterly contemptuous” of U.S. District Judge Janis Graham Jack’s orders, plaintiffs’ lawyers said in a motion filed Friday.

The motion asks the department, Gov. Greg Abbott and Health and Human Services chief Courtney Phillips to show cause for why Jack shouldn’t sanction them for the agency’s alleged stonewalling of her five-year quest to ensure that foster children in group settings are supervised by adults who remain awake all night.

Also at issue is the department’s alleged failure to meet the judge’s Sept. 28 deadline for proposing guidelines for a workload study that will be used to help determine how many youngsters a Child Protective Services conservatorship caseworker should supervise.

So, even four years after Jack’s order, the Lone Star State can’t even describe appropriate guidelines for caseworker caseloads.  Amazing, but true.  Equally so is the fact that the agency can’t manage to hire enough help to ensure that kids in group homes have adult supervision at night.

The agency has apparently been so recalcitrant that the plaintiffs are demanding over $22 million in attorneys’ fees for their efforts to enforce the years-old order.  To their credit, those attorneys are working pro bono and, if the fees are awarded by Jack, intend to ask her to direct the money to special programs for children in foster care.

Meanwhile, the state has already spent $10 million fighting the lawsuit and budgeted $10 million more.  Judge Jack appointed two special masters to oversee Texas’ implementation of her order.  If the state’s efforts in that direction are any indication, it looks like the pair will hold that job for a long time to come.

As I’ve said in the past, this was always going to happen.  When the federal government starts telling the State of Texas how to run its business, even when it violates federal law, the fur is bound to fly.  I’m sure Governor Greg Abbott remembers the Alamo and figures he’s manning the barricades of freedom.  But whatever the case, federal-state conflict is far from unknown in Texas.  Back in the 1970s, another federal judge took over the operation of the Texas Department of Corrections, i.e. its prison system.  The state fought him to a draw.  Now of course the victims of state malfeasance aren’t felons, but children.  Abbott, et al, might want to consider the difference.

On a somewhat more optimistic note, Texas has gone out of state to hire a new commissioner to run the Department of Family and Protective Services (Austin Statesman, 10/9/19).  Whether Jaime Masters, who has extensive experience in child protection in Kansas City, will be able to right this ship is anyone’s guess.  But at least she’s not more of the same, i.e. a product of the Texas system and beholden to it.

State officials fiddle while children suffer.  Hey, it’s a Texas tradition.  This isn’t the last we’ll hear of it.

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