AUSTIN (KXAN) — Texas foster children are spending more nights sleeping in state office buildings and hotel rooms, a state report shows.

A number of children had to spend the night in these temporary situations for years as a “last resort,” while the state grappled with a growing capacity crisis. However, the Department of Family and Protective Services reported a distinct increase in Children Without Placement, or CWOP, last fall. The increase began to accelerate further in spring 2021, and by June, at least 415 children were without placement, according to the latest report released by DFPS. The report shows a slight decline as of the September publication — down to 168 children without placement.

DFPS acknowledges several factors contributing to these increases:

  • COVID-19 pandemic
  • DFPS and the Health and Human Services Commission increasing stricter regulation
  • Increased oversight under the ongoing federal lawsuit and the Court’s Heightened Monitoring causing providers to go offline
  • Children refusing placement in order to remain in CWOP

This same report reveals another concerning trend over the last two years: the average amount of nights a child spent sleeping in CPS offices or hotels leapt up from two or three nights to 18 nights by August 2021. Compared to a low in December 2019, this marks a more than 1,000% increase in the average number of nights children spent without placement.

The agency said they were focused on “eliminating the use of DFPS offices,” but the effort has been met with setbacks, from trouble with residential leases on suitable housing and hotels refusing to accommodate children in DFPS custody.

While “not a favored option,” the report notes DFPS has also considered leasing space from some of the same operations that closed because of the stricter regulations and heightened monitoring outlined above.

“As we explore the reasons children are not being accepted for placement, we are constantly learning,” DFPS Commissioner Masters wrote in the report. “It is imperative that the Court know that DFPS is not “blaming” the CWOP crisis on the Court’s Heightened Monitoring Orders. DFPS is every bit as concerned as the Court about this small but extremely important population of youth in our custody.”

She said they’d be focused on finding better placements for these children, as well as limiting the number of children coming into state custody and care.

“Many have heard me say that the child welfare system is here to protect children from abusive and neglectful families; we are not equipped to protect families from their children or take over parenting when families have reached their limit with behaviors or trying to navigate the mental health system,” Masters wrote. “To that end, I will be collaborating with HHSC to pursue refinements to the ‘front door’ of the
state’s foster care system to ensure that children who are experiencing mental and behavioral challenges can access those needed services under the continued care and supervision of their families, while furthering the goal of keeping families together.”

The month after this report was filed, the parties in the ongoing federal lawsuit against DFPS agreed to find three nationally-recognized experts to serve on a panel and come up with solutions to the capacity problems and CWOP concerns. The following experts have signed retainer agreements and have begun collaborating:

Both Vincent and Meltzer are being paid by the hour for their work. The money will come out of a trust account that’s being held for Texas foster care children by their attorneys at Yetter Coleman, funded by money paid into it by the state and other defendants for those attorney’s fees. That money has instead been held by the law firm “to benefit” the children they represent, according to court documents.

The expert panel could file their recommendations as soon as Dec. 15, but to their retainer agreements filed more recently, all three could working until March 31, 2021.