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STATEMENT: Foster Care Special Monitors Report

Nearly a decade after children in long-term foster care brought a class action lawsuit against the state of Texas, and five years after Judge Jack found Texas liable for violating the rights of thousands of children across the state, a recent report by the Special Monitors appointed by the court finds that children in state care continue to be at an unreasonable risk of harm despite remedial orders put into action in 2018.

After a 10-month investigation that included interviews, site visits, and the review of thousands of documents, the Special Monitors were able to outline in detail (363 pages) the ways in which Texas has moved toward implementing the orders of the court and whether or not their efforts were ensuring that children in care are free from an unreasonable risk of serious harm.

Unfortunately, their investigation led to the following conclusion:

“As detailed in this report and taken together, the Monitors’ investigative analysis and findings reveal a disjointed and dangerous child protection system, inefficiently and unsafely divided between two state agencies, where harm to children is at critical times overlooked, ignored, or forgotten.” With 51,417 Texas children moving through the child protection system in FY19 alone, including the three preventable fatalities outlined in the report, we must get this right.

For those of you unable to read the entire report, here are the critical findings that you need to know:

1. DFPS policies, practices, and procedures at the front end of the system are ultimately leaving cases of child maltreatment uninvestigated. Starting with Statewide Intake (SWI), one out of every five calls are abandoned (18%), in part due to long wait times that can easily exceed 20 minutes. However, nearly half of all abandoned calls are dropped within the first 5 minutes (47% of abandoned calls) indicating that there may be contributing factors beyond hold time. Then, once a report is moved along to Child Protective Investigations (CPI) it is far too often inappropriately downgraded in terms of priority, merged with an open case, or screened out, meaning it does not reach “threshold” for an abuse or neglect investigation. The Special Monitors learned that CPI is using a higher threshold for investigating abuse or neglect for children in licensed foster care than children in a biological parent’s home. The result being that cases were usually reviewed for minimum standards violations in licensed foster care placements instead of investigated for abuse or neglect, which places children at a risk of harm.

2. The State is falling behind on investigations, leaving children in potentially unsafe situations. The Special Monitors highlighted the State’s lack of timeliness in Child Protective Investigations (CPI). CPI is not in full compliance with responding to investigations within the mandated time frame, and CPI had 500 backlogged cases as of April 2020. For instance, 32% of Priority One investigations were not initiated within 24 hours of intake as mandated, and 79% of all investigations were not completed timely. This leaves children in potentially unsafe situations.

3. High caseloads impact a worker’s ability to perform their duties in a timely fashion and places children at risk. The topic of caseload size has been a historic issue and was again emphasized in this report. The Special Monitors highlighted that the State, though they had agreed to a caseload size of 14-17 for investigators and conservatorship caseworkers in December 2019, was still not in compliance. Specifically, the Special Monitors learned that 46% of investigators, 59% of placement inspectors, and 51% of conservatorship caseworkers were carrying caseloads above recommended levels, causing concern for untimeliness and mistakes.

4. Many children do not know who to contact if they need to make a complaint or if they experience abuse or neglect while in foster care. If they do know where to make such complaints and outcries, access to a phone is limited or supervised, leaving children feeling like they do not have an outlet to report what is going on in their placement. Of the children interviewed by the Special Monitors, 71% were unaware of the Foster Care Ombudsman (FCO), which was set up specifically for foster youth to make complaints in order to address their concerns. In addition, 40% of the children interviewed by the Special Monitors were unaware of the abuse and neglect hotline.

5. Breakdowns in communication leave children’s needs unmet and make it difficult to ensure child safety. The Special Monitors highlighted in different parts of their report how there are breakdowns in communication within the Department but also between the Department and others working with families and children. For instance, caseworkers are not being notified appropriately when there is an open investigation for a child on their caseload. This prevents a caseworker from being able to check up on the child to follow up on any risk of harm and to ensure child safety. In addition, the Special Monitors learned that there was not consistent documentation and that caregivers were not made aware of sexual abuse and/or sexual aggression histories of children. Without this information, it is difficult for caregivers to ensure they can meet the child’s needs, to ensure the child’s safety, and to ensure the safety of the other children in the home as well.

6. The State’s IT infrastructure is a barrier to identifying potentially dangerous placements. The State uses two different IT systems that do not communicate with each other for oversight of children’s placements. This lack of cohesiveness causes issues when trying to track critical information such as investigation histories, which can make it difficult to identify any history of child maltreatment.

7. The State’s lack of oversight of child placements is placing children at risk of harm. The Special Monitors emphasized that Residential Child Care Licensing (RCCL) does not exercise enough oversight over licensed placements as evidenced by numerous minimum standards violations by placements, yet little enforcement action implemented by RCCL. They rarely revoke licenses and often continue to place children in placements with histories that show clear patterns of concerns, leading the Special Monitors to uncover many stories, including child fatalities.

At TexProtects, we focus on evidence-based solutions that can prevent child abuse and neglect and prioritize family preservation whenever possible. We believe that in most cases children do best when they remain at home with their families if they are able to access needed supports to improve safety and health; however, when a child cannot remain safely with their family and separation is the safest course of action, the state must be able to ensure that safety and well-being will improve for that child.

Despite efforts by the state to implement the orders of the court and improve the quality of care, the findings in this report make clear that we must not only radically shift the way we provide care for children who have been victims of abuse and neglect but also, that we must do more to ensure fewer children are in need of this system in the first place. Even at its best, our ultimate goal should be significantly fewer children in state foster care – and more investments in proven programs and interventions that truly keep children safe and at home.

Join our mission at TexProtects and take action to prevent child abuse and improve lives for kids in foster care.

For a full summary of the lawsuit history, please click here.

foster care lawsuit timeline

Posted on July 6, 2020.

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