Even with the best of intentions, organizational overhaul and systemic reform take time. The most vulnerable kids in Texas’ overwhelmed foster care system don’t have time to wait: They need help now.
A federal judge’s detailed, sharply critical order was issued last month, capping a five-year-long lawsuit filed on behalf of children in long-term foster care. Judge Janis Jack ruled for the U.S. Southern District of Texas that the state routinely violates the 14th Amendment right of roughly 12,000 children to be free from harm while in its care.
These are the kids who need the most help, but they get the least attention. The first year of state supervision of children in its care is considered “temporary conservatorship,” during which courts and caseworkers work toward family reunification, placement with a relative or adoption.
If none of those strategies succeed, the child becomes a “permanent conservator” — and the case loses its urgency. Court documents show that too often, these kids are shuffled from placement to placement by a system that barely manages to keep track of them.
Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton immediately appealed the sweeping ruling, and reforms are on hold pending further action by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit in New Orleans. Paxton’s office has fought back, branding the court’s intervention as a “federal takeover” that threatens state sovereignty.
This will all take time to sort out. But there are “quick fixes” outlined in the judge’s order that could take effect immediately, while broader systemic issues — such as caseworker overload, burnout and turnover — are considered.
We call on the state to take immediate action to:
1. Agree to immediate appointment of a court-ordered Special Master to begin studying broad, long-term reform.
2. Allow all interviews between caseworkers and children in state care to be conducted in private, outside the presence of foster home managers.
3. Establish a 24-hour hotline to report abuse and neglect, with a number posted in all foster care facilities. Children in care must have unmonitored access to a telephone that can reach the hotline.
4. Enforce the judge’s ban on placing children in group homes — those that house more than six foster children — that do not have “awake night” supervision, meaning there is always an adult staff member awake and on duty.
5. Allow children to room only with others whose “service levels” are similar to their own. For example, kids whose needs are classified as “basic” should not share bedrooms with children with “intensive” needs who suffer severe emotional or behavioral problems.
These vulnerable kids need more, so much more. As the judge points out, too many of them are leaving the system more damaged than when they were taken in. As Texans, we should all be ashamed at that failure.
Fixes — even the small ones — can’t begin too soon.
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