Foster care problems draw scathing court ruling


Texas Department of Family and Protective Services Commissioner John J. Specia, Jr. testified in foster care lawsuit.
Texas Department of Family and Protective Services Commissioner John J. Specia, Jr. testified in foster care lawsuit. Star-Telegram

U.S. District Judge Janis Jack of Corpus Christi couldn’t have been more damning of Texas’ failures in caring for foster children than she was in her Dec. 17 order declaring the state system unconstitutional.

She said she will put a special master in charge of that system within 30 days and will give the special master six months to come up with a plan to reform it.

At any given time, approximately 29,000 children are under state custodial care.

Texas is expected to appeal Jack’s ruling — officials usually don’t like it when someone else is given control over a state agency and its programs, in this case the Department of Family and Protective Services.

But Jack’s 260-page ruling is exhaustingly thorough, and it thoroughly castigates DFPS for years of not just failing to properly serve foster children but actually placing them in danger.

“Texas’s foster care system is broken, and it has been that way for decades,” Jack wrote.

The system even fails DFPS employees “who are tasked with impossible workloads,” she wrote.

And it is broken most of all for foster children who cannot be placed in family homes and instead go into permanent state care until they “age out” at 18. Jack wrote that those children “almost uniformly leave State custody more damaged than when they entered.”

Seventeen foster care children and their advocates filed suit March 29, 2011, and the case went to trial a year ago.

In her ruling, Jack said foster children have a 14th Amendment right “to be free from an unreasonable risk of harm caused by the State.”

To prove their case, the plaintiffs had to show that DFPS acted with “deliberate indifference” or departed from “professional judgment.”

By either standard, in example after example, Jack wrote, “Texas’s conduct shocks the conscience.”

Overburdened caseworkers, lack of a system to determine proper case loads or to stem high turnover rates, improper record keeping, failure to track children who endanger others, putting children in group homes that do not provide 24-hour awake-night supervision, along with other issues cited for years in agency and legislative reports, pose unreasonable risks for children, Jack wrote.

A lengthy appeals process probably is ahead, but the problems Jack cited in her ruling should get every Texan’s attention.