Federal judge fines Texas child welfare agency $100K per day for foster care failures

Federal judge fines Texas child welfare agency $100K per day for foster care failures
1 month 1 week 4 days ago Monday, April 15 2024 Apr 15, 2024 April 15, 2024 6:37 PM April 15, 2024 in News
Source: texastribune.org
U.S. District Judge Janis Jack administers the U.S. oath of citizenship to more than 100 area residents representing 25 countries in 2008 aboard the USS Lexington. Graham Jack was the first woman federal judge to serve in Texas south of San Antonio. July 5, 2008 Credit: Courtesy of Todd Yates/Corpus Christi Caller-Times

"Federal judge fines Texas child welfare agency $100K per day for foster care failures" was first published by The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them — about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.

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A federal judge has ordered Texas’ child welfare agency to pay $100,000 per day in fines for routinely neglecting investigations into allegations of abuse and neglect by children in the state’s beleaguered foster care system, according to a Monday order.

U.S. District Judge Janis Jack found Texas Health and Human Services Commissioner Cecile E. Young in contempt of her court orders to fix the way the state investigates complaints by children in its care.

It is the third time the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services, the child welfare arm of HHS, has been held in contempt of court orders since a 2011 lawsuit was filed about foster care conditions.

The judge’s decision was prompted by the “continued recalcitrance” to conduct thorough, accurate and timely abuse, neglect, and exploitation investigations by the agency’s Provider Investigations unit, which investigates those allegations, the 427-page decision reads.

“As demonstrated by the stories of the children and PI’s failure to take any action to remedy the egregious flaws identified by the Monitors, PI represents a significant, systemic failure that increases the risk of serious harm [to the children].”

The fines levied against Texas will be lifted when the state can demonstrate that its investigations are in compliance. A hearing on that matter is set for late June.

Jack made her first ruling condemning the state foster care system in 2015, and three years later, the conservative Fifth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals agreed. Since then, she’s ordered several fixes over the years and continuously criticized the state for not complying with her orders.

Since 2019, DFPS has been under the supervision of court-appointed monitors who have released periodic reports on Texas’ progress toward eliminating threats to children’s safety in the foster care system.

Attorneys representing the foster children in the lawsuit said Monday’s ruling from Jack sends a strong message.

“The judge’s ruling is measured but urgent, given the shocking evidence,” said Paul Yetter, attorney for the plaintiffs. “Innocent children are suffering every day. After all these years, when will state leadership get serious about fixing this disaster?”

Officials at the DFPS declined to comment on Monday. A spokesperson at HHS said the agency was reviewing the order.

Last year, the plaintiffs asked the court to place parts of the foster care system under receivership, which is when a court appoints outside experts to run all or parts of an agency's operations while the agency fixes the issues that prompted that action.

A January report by foster care monitors cited progress in the area of staff training but continued weaknesses in the agencies’ responses to investigations into allegations of abuse and neglect made by children or those who contact them.

At the center of the battle are the roughly 9,000 children in permanent state custody, removed from their homes due to circumstances that can include abuse at home, or complex health needs that parents are unable to manage without help, or the loss of their family caregivers.

They often present the most tragic stories and have some of the most complex mental and behavioral needs of any child in the system, yet they are often left in dangerous homes and residential centers with poor supervision — frequently overmedicated, trafficked, and unable to get help if they’re continuing to be being abused.

Testimony during a series of hearings earlier this year and late last year zeroed in on the poor quality and backlog of investigations into complaints of sexual abuse reported by children in state care who have intellectual or developmental disabilities, such as autism, fetal-alcohol syndrome, and Down syndrome.

In one case, plaintiffs say, a girl was left in the same residential facility for a year while 12 separate investigations piled up around allegations that she had been raped by a worker at the facility. She was left in the facility with that same worker until she was “dumped in an emergency room, alone, with her jaw broken in two places,” Jack said.

The facility was eventually shut down by the state.

That investigation never substantiated the allegations, and a new state agency policy does not require investigators to explain those findings — a policy criticized by Jack and Yetter and referred to in Monday's decision.

According to the court monitors, children in the state’s care are not informed how to report sexual abuse. Also, the state also has not been able to prove that it has properly trained its caseworkers on how to identify potential victims of sexual abuse.

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This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2024/04/15/texas-foster-care-federal-judge-fine-contempt/.

The Texas Tribune is a member-supported, nonpartisan newsroom informing and engaging Texans on state politics and policy. Learn more at texastribune.org.

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