AUSTIN (KXAN) — There’s mounting concern about living conditions for children in the Texas foster care system, with the latest data revealing more children living in state offices or other unlicensed facilities.

“It’s out of control,” said Carrie Ward, who serves as an attorney for children and parents in Child Protective Services cases. “They’re homeless, and they are children.”

Experts and officials call it a ‘capacity crisis,’ but a group of Court Monitors, who are overseeing the foster care system in Texas throughout an ongoing federal lawsuit into the matter, have released two reports highlighting other concerns, such as abuse and neglect.

At the end of April, the Monitors released a report detailing concerns about the number of “children without placement,” living in places such as hotels, Texas Department of Family and Protective Services (DFPS) office buildings and facilities without a license to care for foster kids. The report states, “a growing body of evidence from State records has surfaced serious allegations that children are being abused and neglected in these settings.”

The report details incidents of runaway attempts and sexual contact between the children at these sites. One teen, it states, ingesting 15 pills from a caseworker’s work station and had to be rushed to the hospital.

A large portion of the report was dedicated to issues with children being placed at an emergency shelter in San Antonio, called the Whataburger Center, which was cited hundreds of times for dangerous conditions over the last few years.

The Monitors accused the office of Gov. Greg Abbott and other state leaders of not reporting the problems at this shelter, and in a hearing on April 20, a policy advisor from Gov. Abbott’s office confirmed they had learned about these placements in October 2020 and failed to notify the Monitors. 

Patrick Crimmins, Texas DFPS spokesperson, told the Texas Tribune certain placements of foster care children in unlicensed facilities were not reported to the monitors for months because of an “oversight” by the department, because it did not track that data for sites managed by the state’s five community-based care providers.

According to DFPS, Community-Based Care is designed to be a “better way to provide services than traditional foster care, because it gives local communities the flexibility to draw on local strengths and resources and find innovative ways to meet the unique and individual needs of children.” Under this model, the state outsources a geographic area’s foster care work to a single contractor or agency. That agency then creates a network of services, foster homes and other living arrangements for the kids in their area. So far, this model has only been implemented in certain parts of the state, such as parts of North Texas and Bexar County — where the Whataburger Center is located.

In their second report, the Monitors said they found foster care was performing better in areas still under direct state control (DFPS), when compared with places utilizing Community-Based Care. In fact, they noted several areas of progress from the Department of Family and Protective Services, as a whole.

“We are glad to see the areas in which the state is improving,” Marcia Lowry, executive director of A Better Childhood and a co-counsel in the lawsuit, said in a statement. “However, we are very troubled that almost two years after the court’s remedial orders went into effect, children are being placed in unlicensed placements and being subjected to many dangerous, damaging conditions.” 

During a council meeting for DFPS last Friday, officials listed Central Texas (Region 7) as one of the areas of the state with the highest number of children without placement.

They noted the stressors of the pandemic, plus an increase in the number of closures of Residential Treatment Facilities — designed to provide shelter and therapy for substance-use disorders, mental illness, or other behavioral problems — have contributed to the capacity problems.

A graph presented by DFPS officials in a May 14 council meeting, showing the rise in Children Without Placements (CWOPs) and the loss of available beds from Residential Treatment Facilities (RTC).

DFPS Commissioner Jaime Masters said they were dealing with another crisis, with kids refusing placements and requesting to stay in state offices.

“The office is not a placement. It’s less structure. Staff can’t make kids do anything,” she explained.

She noted they plan to change some policies and rules in order to implement more structure and encourage children to move to a more suitable placement.

In the meeting, several speakers also pointed out the Court Monitors’ acknowledgement of the progress the agency has made.

Scott Lundy, CEO of Arrow Child and Family Ministries, said his agency was working to expand a different solution, Treatment Foster Care. The program works to get “highly traumatized, very complex youth” out of residential centers and psychiatric hospitals — and into homes.

“There’s not a kid’s issue and not a child’s trauma that can’t be healed better in a family,” he said.

He shared the story of one child who was supposed to sleep in a CPS office on Christmas Eve. Instead, at the last minute, a Treatment Foster family was able to take him in, and Lundy said this teen is living and thriving in their home to this day.

“He’s now enrolled in ROTC, and it’s just a huge success story,” he said.

However, Lundy will be the first to admit, it’s a slow-moving process.

To be a part of the program, one parent must become a member of Arrow’s clinical team, undergo extensive training and even agree to stay home with the kids involved. Lundy’s team offers “wrap-around support” and even sends behavior specialists to the school and home with the child.

He credits the Texas legislature for funding the program well.

“And it’s working,” he added.

Still, 282 children spent at least two consecutive nights in unlicensed placements last month, according to DFPS data. That’s increased from 237 children the month before.

Everyone from advocates to attorneys to state officials has acknowledged the agency struggles to place children with special needs — from those with behavioral challenges to those needing mental health assistance.

DFPS reported only 9% of children without placement and living in unlicensed facilities needed the lowest-level of care, called “Basic.” Meanwhile, 19% of these kids required “Moderate” care; 45% required even more “Specialized” care. 27% of them required the highest classification, with “Intense” care needs.

“The case workers would have to sit with these kids, and they are not trained for that,” Ward said, emphasizing the toll this crisis will take on the DFPS workforce.

Another worry for her clients? DFPS data also reveals a significant number of children finding placements outside their region.

“Where there’s no practical way for them to see their parents on a regular basis; no practical way for them to see their siblings on a regular basis,” Ward described.

April data revealed 97 Travis County kids — around 20% of the total number of children in the Central Texas region — were placed outside of Region 7.

“Anymore? There’s no figuring out where’s the best place. That used to be a thing. Now, it’s, ‘Where’s available?’” said Ward.