Texas foster care

Abused and neglected children, such as this 7-year-old, shown at an emergency shelter in Garland in 2016, often linger for years in Texas foster care.

AUSTIN — Texas and lawyers for foster children are turning to experts for advice on how to solve the problem of youngsters sleeping in Child Protective Services offices, hotels and churches, under the watch of state caseworkers.

All parties to a decade-old federal lawsuit over conditions in Texas’ system of long-term foster care agree that children removed from their birth families because of maltreatment should be housed in homes with trained foster parents — and if that’s not possible, humanely operated congregate-care settings.

Instead, a growing number sleep on cots in state office buildings, in hotel rooms and on mattresses pitched in church meeting halls because of what Gov. Greg Abbott, two state agencies and plaintiffs’ lawyers agreed Friday are “ongoing gaps in appropriate services and placements in Texas.”

In a court filing on Friday and announcements by the two sides on Monday, the lawsuit’s parties said they’ve agreed to seek a nonbinding set of recommendations from three neutral experts on how to alleviate the crisis.

The state was careful to say in the agreement that “the recommendations will impose no obligations upon defendants.” Still, Texas vowed to “cooperate in good faith” and consider the recommendations.

Recommendations are due Dec. 15. Within 15 days of their receipt, U.S. District Judge Janis Graham Jack’s monitors will meet with the three experts and state officials and plaintiffs’ lawyers to hash out the ideas and set a time certain for the Abbott administration to say whether it will put them into effect.

Under the agreement, the plaintiffs and the state each will name one expert and then they will choose a third.

The plaintiffs’ pick is Judith Meltzer, who has worked on overhauling child welfare systems in Tennessee, South Carolina, New Jersey and Washington, D.C.

Meltzer is executive vice president of the D.C.-based Center for the Study of Social Policy, a nonpartisan group founded by the late MacArthur genius grant recipient Tom Joe, a former Nixon administration official. The center studies federal and state welfare programs, foster care and poverty among children. Meltzer has experience working in federal welfare programs in Chicago and as an academic researcher of social safety-net programs.

State defendants Abbott, the Department of Family and Protective Services and the Health and Human Services Commission chose as their expert former commission official Ann Elizabeth Stanley.

Since 2000, Stanley has worked for Casey Family Programs, the nation’s largest foundation focused on foster care. Earlier, she was director of the Health and Human Services Commission’s children’s bureau. In that post, she worked on the rollouts of the Children’s Health Insurance Program and Medicaid managed care coverage of mental illness and substance abuse. In the 1980s, Stanley practiced as a child and family mental health therapist in Washington state and Travis County.

Number of children sleeping in offices increasing

All year, as the number of children sleeping in CPS offices increased, the reasons became the subject of supercharged debate. Leading GOP lawmakers who write child welfare policy blamed a “heightened monitoring” order that Jack issued in an effort to root out shoddy providers.

Almost all foster children in Texas now are housed by private entities that contract with the protective-services department. Provider groups, while not always happy with the suddenly tougher regulation by the state, also have pointed to inadequate state reimbursements. For years, some have said they had to tap endowments to make ends meet — or provide “extras” for the children.

At a September status conference, Jack bristled at suggestions she had caused the bed shortage by ordering tougher oversight of the paid caregivers.

Oklahoma, as the result of similar litigation, closed 40% of its congregate-care facilities for having poor health and safety records and still did not experience a capacity crunch of the sort Texas is enduring, she noted.

As Family and Protective Services Commissioner Jaime Masters testified before a House panel nearly two weeks ago, she submitted a written presentation that acknowledged Texas struggles with children without placements, or CWOPs, as the children sleeping in offices are called.

“Since September 2020, there has been a marked increase in the number of youth in CWOP,” Masters’ PowerPoint said. “Contributing factors include the COVID-19 pandemic, shortage of providers, and stricter regulations.”

They tend to be older — ages 13 to 17 — and, in many cases, “have experienced prior psychiatric hospitalizations, and have a history of running away, self-harm, physical aggression/assault, sexual victimization and/or sexual aggression,” Masters’ presentation said.

In September, the number of such children increased more than four-fold, to 362 from 87 a year earlier. And the state only counts toward its monthly tally those youngsters who spend at least two consecutive nights in an office or makeshift sleeping arrangement.

Even more troubling, the average length of stay in the unlicensed setting increased to 18 days in September — up 500% from the average of 3.6 days in September 2020.

In June and July, the number of kids without placements exceeded 400.

Declining number of beds

According to Masters’ written testimony, in fiscal 2020, the state sustained a net loss of 147 beds and, in the budget year that ended Aug. 31, another 471 beds.

Masters said that, since June, the state has developed and brought into the system some additional beds. One pressing need has been for “step-down facilities,” which take children discharged from psychiatric hospitals. “In August 2020, DFPS had contracts with 11 Intensive Psychiatric Transition Program (IPTP) providers, but now only 3 providers remain,” her PowerPoint said.

On Monday, department spokesman Patrick Crimmins praised provider groups and entities as “extremely helpful.”

“We have been working more cooperatively with the providers than we ever have, just in recent months, getting the kids out of offices and into alternative locations,” he said.

Houston lawyer Paul Yetter, the plaintiffs’ lead counsel during a 2014 trial, said he’s not sure what suggestions Meltzer, Stanley and the third expert will make.

“This problem keeps popping up,” he said of children sleeping in CPS offices. “Children keep getting hurt. And we have to find a new path.”

Court-appointed monitors recently detailed how, in such unlicensed settings as CPS offices, many of the children are being given the wrong or improper doses of psychotropic medications, being exposed to sexual abuse or engaging in self harm.

Meanwhile, CPS conservatorship caseworkers, whose workloads recently had been reduced as a result of the suit, thus reducing chronically high turnover, are feeling the brunt of the lack of foster homes or other appropriate treatment facilities.

Workers are being required to pull overtime shifts, around the clock, to watch the children who lack proper foster-care placements. Depending on the region of the state, the shifts are four hours or eight hours.

In September, the department, CPS’s parent agency, said in a report that turnover among conservatorship workers is again rising.

Yetter noted, “This agreement allows [retention of] the best outside experts that we can find, so that they can look at this ongoing problem, consider the state’s structure and resources, and make recommendations about solutions that will work in the real world, both in the short term and the long term.”

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