AUSTIN (KXAN) — More than 200 children slept in state offices for multiple nights in March of this year as the “capacity crisis” in the Texas foster care system continues to worsen.

According to data from the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services, during February 2020 — before the coronavirus began to spread in Texas communities — 34 children spent two or more nights sleeping in DFPS offices. By March 2021, that number had increased by nearly seven times, with 237 kids sleeping in offices.

Scott Lundy, CEO of Arrow Child and Family Ministries, said he has worked in the child welfare system for three decades. He called 2020 the “most challenging year” of his career.

‘It’s a catastrophe’

In short, there aren’t enough beds to accommodate every child entering the foster care system, and Lundy said it’s reaching the level of a “catastrophe.”

“The capacity crisis that we have right now is the worst that I’ve ever seen,” Lundy said.

A spokesperson for DFPS said providers have been “profoundly affected by the pandemic and more recently by February’s winter storm.” They explained foster care providers have struggled to recruit and train foster families willing to open their homes, while residential treatment centers have faced similar struggles with retaining qualified staff.

According to state data, Texas gained 393 beds for children in Fiscal Year 2020 but lost 540 beds. So far in FY 2021, we’ve already lost 696 beds, while only gaining 112.

“DFPS is constantly working with providers to bring more capacity online, while prioritizing child safety over sheer numbers of beds,” the spokesperson said.

Lundy said, “It takes a long time to build capacity, but you can lose it overnight.”

He and his wife fostered and ultimately adopted three children himself.

“I can’t imagine my kids spending time in an office — sleeping there and eating there,” he said. “There’s no laundry facilities. They are eating out the whole time. There’s not a lot for them to do, and recreation, or things that, that would be normal for a child.”

Federal lawsuit

However, problems in the Texas foster care system began long before the pandemic. A decades-long federal lawsuit has drawn attention to stories of abuse, neglect and mounting caseload sizes.

In 2015, Judge Janis Jack ruled the Texas foster care system was broken and ordered the state to make changes, including around the clock supervision by adults who are awake for foster children in a group setting. Almost five years later, in 2019, it was found that DFPS had not implemented her orders. By September 2020, state officials were again warned that they could be held in contempt of court if reforms weren’t implemented.

Right now, the state is still making changes and dealing with the fallout from the lawsuit.

In fact, at the end of last year DFPS asked the legislature for $38 million to comply with the lawsuit. The Texas Health and Human Services Commission, which is also named in the lawsuit, requested $37 million to cover costs over the same period.

Debbie Sceroler, Senior Director for foster care and adoption at Bucker, said the pandemic couldn’t have come at a worse time, with the foster care system already in this “state of reform.”

She explained that legislation a few years back allowed Texas to transition Community Based Care model, where local communities organize to provide services rather than the traditional model run entirely by the state. Still, the new data shows reforms are slow-moving.

“We’ve always had more children coming into care, than we do families,” she said. “I think awareness is definitely the first thing we need.”

Buckner works to provide temporary homes

Buckner Children and Family Services recruits and licenses foster homes in Texas.

They’ve helped connect foster parents like Buck and Stephanie Baskin with kids in-need of a temporary home, — sometimes even just for a short time while a child’s case is reviewed, before the child is placed back with family or with adoptive parents.

“It is the hardest, best thing we’ve ever done,” Stephanie said, recalling the more than 15 foster children they’ve welcomed into their home in Mesquite over the last 11 years.

“You realize the need that’s there, and you just continue on,” Buck said. “They’ll be like, ‘Oh, y’all are so special. How do you do it?’ We are not special — we just jumped in and did it.”

Buckner also offer provide preventative services through their Family Hope Center, to help families stay together and avoid falling into the foster care system.

At the end of April, after hearing about the increasing numbers of children staying in state offices, they launched a partnership with the state to provide a more home-like environment for more than 30 at-risk children across the state — opening up campus foster cottages in six different cities. Each home will house up to four children and are located in Dallas, Beaumont, Lubbock, Midland, and Mission in the Rio Grande Valley.

“So, basically we provide the facility and oversee the safety of the facility, and CPS resumes responsibility of the children that stay there. This provides them a more home-like environment,” she said, noting it’s a far better option than a state office.

“Food and activities and games and hygiene products and just the ability to be outdoors and be in a home until permanency can be found. This is a temporary solution. We know children will come and go.”

Legislative efforts at long-term solutions

Meanwhile, several efforts at the State Capitol are aimed at providing more long-term solutions and funding.

Kate Murphy, Senior Child Welfare Policy Associate with the group Texans Care for Children, said some of the most important legislative pushes are the ones that work to implement the Family First Prevention Services Act — federal legislation passed in 2018.

“It really shifted a lot of things for state child welfare system,” she explained. “It restructured how the feds are going to pay for foster care, and it opened up new funding for prevention services that can keep kids out of foster care in the first place.”

She explained that several pieces of the 2022-2023 state budget would allocate funding to things like those prevention services, as well as provider rates.

“We know that we need to support foster care providers right now, especially the ones that are doing life-saving work for kids and taking care of our kids. We want to make sure they have the resources to do that well,” Murphy said.

She also mentioned two bills other to watch with “really, really good stuff for kids” — SB 1896 and SB 1575 — both proposed by Senator Lois Kolkhorst.

Still, Murphy thinks Texas needs to have a long-term vision of how to take care of families, rather than focusing on “putting out this fire.” That will take “sustained interest” on behalf of lawmakers.

“We need them to remember that passing the law is just the beginning,” she said.

Who are the children sleeping in offices?

According to DFPS, it has proved more difficult to find placements for older teens who have complex behavioral or psychological needs, and therefore need specialized care.

The number of children without placements began to increase toward the end of 2020 and into 2021 (Graphic and data provided by the Department of Family and Protective Services)

Oftentimes, these children need care in a residential living or treatment facility, which Sceroler said have faced higher levels of scrutiny and increased costs in recent years. Buckner does not operate any of these types of facilities, but their leadership is aware that many are closing.

Lundy echoed that fact, saying some of these closures — and part of the capacity crisis, in general — was due to increased regulation and oversight following the federal lawsuit.

“How do we support these mission-driven organizations at taking care of kids better, and better, and better,” he said. “Instead of just fining them?”

Arrow Child and Family Ministries instead operates a program called Treatment Foster Care, in order to get “highly traumatized, very complex youth” out of residential centers and psych hospitals and into homes. To be a part of the program, one parent must become a member of their clinical team, undergo extensive training and even agree to stay home with the kids involved.

Still, he said they’ve seen the success rate nearly double for children in the program — 73% compared to less than 30% for similar children in a residential facility or other institutionalized environment.

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