Other Voices

Foster care decision targets right problems, but wrong solutions

Foster Care family
Foster Care family Getty Images/iStockphoto

Pity the vulnerable children of Texas who are trapped between a foster care system that amounts to institutionalized child abuse and a group that calls itself Children’s Rights, which has won a federal lawsuit against that system but has no clue how to fix it.

U.S. District Judge Janis Jack of Corpus Christi ruled in favor of Children’s Rights last month. The state is appealing.

Jack is right about the horrors of the system, but the solutions she targets nibble around the edges of the problem — and in the long run, they actually could make things worse.

That’s because the solutions, and the lawsuit, ignore the elephant in the room: needless removal of children from their homes.

Most parents who lose children to foster care are neither brutally abusive nor hopelessly addicted. Far more common are cases in which family poverty has been confused with “neglect.”

Other cases fall between the extremes, the parents neither all-victim nor all-villain.

So it’s no wonder that two landmark studies of more than 15,000 children found that in typical cases, children left in their own homes did better in later life even than comparably maltreated children placed in foster care.

But it’s not just the children needlessly removed who are hurt.

All the time spent on false allegations, trivial cases and needless removal is, in effect, stolen from finding children who are in real danger.

The court decision demands that Texas address issues like placing children in unsafe group homes and lowering caseloads for workers.

But it is needless removal that causes the placement of children in unsafe group homes. And it is needless removal that overloads caseworkers.

The biggest risk involves financing reform. Texas needs to spend more on child welfare, but it also needs to spend smarter.

If the state is forced to pour vast amounts of new money into hiring more caseworkers and supervising more foster homes, the court also must order the Legislature not to divert that money from better options — the safe, proven prevention and family preservation programs that have worked in other states.

Unfortunately, that’s exactly what’s happened in at least two other states sued by CR, Michigan and Georgia. So the Texas court ruling could put at risk innovative efforts to curb needless removal of children now underway in San Antonio and Houston.

The state should seek to negotiate a settlement – but not the kind that usually follows Children Rights’ McLawsuits.

Instead, the model should be the settlement won by the Bazelon Center for Mental Health Law when it sued the child welfare system in Alabama.

That settlement demanded that the system be rebuilt to emphasize safe, proven programs to keep families together. It turned the Alabama system into a national model — and independent court-appointed monitors found that child safety improved.

Johana Scot is executive director of the Parent Guidance Center in Austin. Richard Wexler is executive director of the National Coalition for Child Protection Reform in Alexandria, Va. A member of NCCPR’s volunteer board of directors was co-counsel for plaintiffs in the Alabama lawsuit.