Days into a historic pummeling from a massive winter storm, child welfare workers across Texas are scrambling to keep tens of thousands of foster youth in the state’s care safe from a storm that has already killed at least 10 people.
Marissa Gonzalez, spokesperson for Texas’s Department of Family and Protective Services, said the agency has been working through power outages and spotty internet to stay in communication with hundreds of foster care providers across the state.
“They are reporting what everyone is experiencing — power outages and loss of heat, burst pipes, impassable roads due to snow and ice,” Gonzalez wrote in an email to The Imprint on Tuesday. Although some vulnerable children have had to move to hotels, she added, “so far, with limited feedback, each child and youth in care seems to be safe.”
Millions of Texans have lost power in recent days as temperatures plunged below freezing — a far cry from the mid-60s these Southerners are accustomed to at this time of year. The power outages have affected water treatment plants, leaving many residents without clean running water.
Left without a way to heat their homes, some have become desperate. Local media reports describe families using gas grills to heat their homes, or running their cars inside their garages to warm up, landing a number of children in the hospital with carbon monoxide poisoning, at least one of whom has died.
Texas’s child welfare department is responsible for more than 28,000 kids in foster care and roughly 100 residential treatment facilities, each housing dozens of youth. The state system has been under the watch of a federal monitor since a 2015 class-action lawsuit found it was failing to keep foster children safe, well before the added pressure of a natural disaster.
The state’s many group homes and youth residential facilities have been particularly challenged by the storm. Those campuses rely on shift staff to provide 24-hour care to children who often have behavioral and mental health issues. But the severe and icy weather has forced road closures and made it dangerous for many workers to drive to and from work.
Katie Olse, CEO of the Texas Alliance for Children and Family Services, said there have been “a lot of really heroic efforts to maintain care” at residential facilities. Staff are working long shifts and spending the night on campuses to ensure round-the-clock supervision. Employees with four-wheel-drive vehicles are braving the storm to shuttle co-workers to and from their shifts.
“We have facility staff who continue to go in and risk their own life, we have kitchen staff staying overnight to ensure children are fed,” said Anais Biera Miracle, public relations director with The Children’s Shelter, which manages the foster care system in San Antonio and neighboring counties.
Like first responders, Miracle said, child welfare workers are on the front lines of disasters like this. Case managers are still braving the field as well, relying on shaky cell service when internet connections go out and charging up in the car during blackouts.
None of the facilities overseen by the Children’s Shelter have experienced prolonged outages so far, and all of the residential programs and emergency shelters are stocked with extra warm clothes for the kids if they do, Miracle said.
Other foster care facilities have not been so lucky. Gonzalez with DFPS said one group home in the Houston area lost power and heat, so 15 children were temporarily moved to a hotel.
“And that is not an isolated example,” she said.
Foster family agencies and group homes are required to have emergency plans in place to guide them through disasters like this, Olse said, and the state has signaled a willingness to help in individual cases, such as needs that could arise with medically fragile foster children who can’t be exposed to harsh weather.
Olse said the state agency is doing everything it can to help “and we feel that,” she said.
Correction: This article erroneously called The Children’s Shelter in San Antonio the Children’s Village. It has been updated to correct the error.