AUSTIN (KXAN) — A federal judge threatened top Texas officials with contempt of court over their handling of the State’s foster care system in a hearing on Monday.
In the latest hearing in a years-long federal lawsuit over the treatment of foster children, Judge Janis Jack walked the court through a series of new reports, released last week by the court monitors. One report detailed specific cases of foster children who died. Another report identified areas of progress and remaining barriers for the Department of Family and Protective Services (DFPS) and the Health and Human Services Commission (HHSC), in implementing the court’s orders under the lawsuit.
Jack said she was looking at fining the state agency over issues still outstanding.
She was particularly concerned about the violations against facilities without “awake night supervisors” to monitor after-hours and about the state placing children in potentially unsafe placements.
She also worried about the length of time some children were spending in Temporary Managing Conservatorships, or TMC, and asked the agencies to provide the monitors with information about these children.
- Read the court monitors’ full report here
During the hearing, the judge told HHSC leaders that overall, the agency HHSC has been “cooperative and transparent. Meanwhile, she said she believes DFPS has not been “from the top down.”
DFPS Commissioner Jaime Masters told the judge her agency was doing its best to meet all the orders. She noted that in some cases, children’s placements are up to local courts or judges instead.
She also emphasized the need for these agencies to implement the recommendations put forth earlier this year by the panel of national experts reviewing the state’s child welfare system.
“There has to be some penalty for not adhering — for not being able to follow the plan after one year,” she said.
The agencies both agreed to meet with the panel in June, and Judge Jack said she would be following back up then on the status of the recommendations.
Child welfare policy expert Kate Murphy with Texans Care for Children said one of the biggest takeaways from the proceedings was that we still don’t have a complete picture of the foster care experience in Texas. She also said her organization was particularly alarmed by the new information on the number of children in the system who have been victims of sexual abuse.
“All of this is just exhausting. It is heartbreaking, and it is really hard work to get this right for our kids in Texas,” she said. “It is just heart-wrenching and really painful to continue to see kids die or experience ongoing abuse — whether that is physical or sexual — because of these kinds of mistakes that were highlighted.”
Murphy said the monitors’ reports show some of the progress Texas has made, but that it was “very clear we are not hitting the mark every time.”
Paul Yetter, the attorney representing the children in the federal lawsuit, released this statement:
“We applaud the progress made by the state to keep these children safe, but there is so much more to be done. Every night, Texas children go to sleep in unsafe, unlicensed placements. Every day, these children under state care are victims of physical and sexual abuse. Enough is enough. After more than a decade into this lawsuit, innocent children are still being traumatized. Today’s court hearing made that abundantly clear yet again. Now the state is dragging its feet on putting in place the vital recommendations made by the expert panel months ago. Much needed reform should be the only goal here, not politics or delay, and the state should stop backpedaling when it comes to keeping our children safe.”
The judge said the next hearing in the lawsuit wouldn’t be held until the end of this year.