Judge sanctions Texas agency over children sleeping in CPS offices

Investigations

A district judge has called on Texas Department of Family and Protective Services to create a task force to address issues in foster care in Travis County. The agency says its doing 'everything' it can do.

AUSTIN (KXAN) — After being moved around between six different foster placements and several stays at psychiatric hospitals, a child in the Texas foster care system had to sleep in a CPS office for 10 nights this year.

During that time, the child purposefully injured themselves and, according to district court records, still struggles with thoughts of self-harm.

In another case, a child spent 97 days sleeping in state offices since April.

A third child spent time in 10 different residential treatment facilities and 24 different placements. Eventually, facilities began denying care for the child — telling state officials they couldn’t provide him with the level of care he needed. Again, this child’s only option, according to CPS officials, was to live out of an office building.

A judge in Travis County presented the details of these children’s cases in a hearing on Aug. 31, before she sanctioned the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services for violating a 2007 standing order that prevents the agency from placing foster children at office buildings for overnight stays.

For years, Children Without Placement, or CWOP, have had to spend time living in offices, hotels and other unlicensed facilities when DFPS cannot find them placement in a foster home, shelter or treatment facility. However, state data shows a huge spike in 2021.

KXAN investigators are tracking the growing number, while DFPS officials acknowledged the issue publicly. They have cited a lack of placement options after the state lost 1,000 beds for foster children this year. Many of these were beds in residential treatment facilities and shelters that opted to close due to a lack of funding or because of increased scrutiny from a decade-long federal lawsuit against the foster care system.

According to court documents from the Aug. 31 hearing, state officials echoed these concerns again.

For instance, Lindsey Van Buskirk, who serves as the director of DFPS in the region that encompasses Austin and Travis County, testified that her department was doing “extensive searches” on a daily basis to try and find placements for these children.

According to a transcript from the hearing, when Judge Aurora Martinez Jones asked if there was anything more she and her staff could be doing, Van Buskirk replied, “I’m doing everything I possibly can, to include working shifts with them.”

An adoptive father of one of the children whose case was discussed told the judge about the emotional, psychological and physical abuse that his son received as a child in the foster system before his adoption. Then, he detailed the difficult decision to seek help from DFPS and his concerns now that placements have been difficult to find.

“Why is there not something that can help our son? We can’t help him without — and we don’t want him
to get hurt. We don’t want him to go through any more,” the parent testified.

Eventually, the judge asked the DFPS Commissioner Jamie Masters to testify.

“We know this is not where kids need to be. If we had a placement for them, they’d be in it. So, I don’t want our staff, both — either in the field or in State Office — to be perceived as doing nothing, or not caring about these kids, and not understanding the services that they need. Because we absolutely do, and we are working around the clock,” she said.

Judge Martinez Jones still found the state agency to be in contempt of the 2007 standing order. She calculated a monetary fine for the agency, based on the nightly cost of providing the highest level of care outlined in the Texas foster care system — called Intense Plus — for the three children in question, and came up with a total of $57,302.96.

The judge asked the agency to use those funds to implement a task force in Region 7, which encompasses Austin and Travis County, to address the CWOP crisis. She asked them for weekly updates ahead of a Sept. 30 deadline to launch the task force.

In a response filed by DFPS, it argued none of its actions as an agency constituted contempt.

“DFPS has done everything possible to comply with the underlying Standing Order, often working closely with the Court, as it has done for years. Such conduct cannot be described as the ‘affront to the dignity and authority’ of the Court that is necessary to a finding of contempt,” the filing read.

DFPS also wrote it believed the judge overstepped her authority and the monetary sanctions — along with their use towards a task force — was not appropriate.

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