There is a sense of serendipity for Travis County Judge Aurora Martinez Jones, as she presides over the Texas courtroom where a history-making lawsuit in the 1940s helped bring an end to legal segregation. Today, she is the first Black woman to preside over the 126th District Court, and the first judge to oversee a docket fully devoted to the region’s struggling children and families.
Communities battered by poverty, addiction, poor health care and domestic violence are too often failed by Child Protective Services in Texas, where Martinez Jones is determined to find solutions.
“When you have the opportunity to intervene in a family’s life, especially a family that is ripe to be poised as the victim of inequitable systems, you have to do something different to prevent the path that a lot of racist systems have built,” Martinez Jones told The Imprint. “My hope, especially for the children, is to dramatically and impactfully change the trajectory, so that we don’t end up in the statistics.”
During an expansive interview, Martinez Jones described her frustration with the state’s Department of Family and Protective Services, foster youth left to sleep in offices, and the challenges of helping people caught up in the state’s troubled child welfare system. To better protect the foster children she oversees in Travis County, she has relied on everything from court orders against the child welfare agency to trauma-informed hearings, and has strengthened connections with community-based service groups.
The 38-year-old judge draws on her past, as the Texas-born daughter of immigrants, and someone who understands the challenges faced by many of the families who appear each weekday in her Austin courtroom.
“Many people who come before her are people of color,” said Cortney Jones, a social worker and former foster youth who founded Change 1, a nonprofit that works with youth and families. “To see a judge that looks like them, they maybe feel like they have a fighting chance.”
A fickle child welfare state
The Texas Department of Family and Protective Services has been under court oversight for more than a decade for its treatment of children in state care, and for three days in 2019 was fined $50,000 a day for violations of its mandate. This month, a federal court judge vowed to yet again impose “substantial fines” for the agency’s failure to comply with orders to fix the foster care system.
As reported by The Texas Tribune, court monitors recently found that the state has been unable to properly oversee residential care for foster children, and as many as one-fourth of children identified as victims of sexual abuse were victimized again after entering foster care.
Earlier this year, Republican Gov. Greg Abbott issued a directive that CPS investigate parents whose transgender children are receiving widely approved affirming health care — a move that has drawn nationwide condemnation and several lawsuits. This month, a Travis County district court judge temporarily stopped the state from carrying out the investigations.
Texas judges interviewed for this story cited other, long-standing factors in the state’s dysfunctional child welfare system, including a lack of mental health resources, extreme poverty and poor funding for community-based services for low-income residents. Additionally, Texas legislators — who are often focused more on political expediency than sound policy development — “rewrite the whole rulebook” for foster care every two years when the legislative season begins anew, said Appellate Court Chief Justice Darlene Byrne.
“If any private sector company was being whiplashed between a new strategic plan every two years, no company would survive,” Byrne said in an interview. “It would fail. It would be in bankruptcy. That’s what you’re seeing right now, our entity is in bankruptcy.”
Martinez Jones calls the current political climate, “a foreseen brewing storm, and now it’s the perfect storm.” The CPS problems, she and Bryne agreed, have been particularly acute under the leadership of Commissioner Jaime Masters, who was appointed to head the Department of Family and Protective Services in 2019.
Masters — who has implemented Abbott’s order to open abuse investigations on families with trans youth — has also overseen the state’s efforts to privatize the foster care system, something that has not fared well in other parts of the country. And, they said, morale in her department is notably low. The agency has suffered a “huge drain from long-term and knowledgeable social workers at the state,” Martinez Jones said.
While the agency is required to follow the law, it develops its own internal policies, and keeping up with those changes can be challenging.
“They internally change their policy like people change their underwear,” said Martinez Jones. “They change their policy at their own whim. Sometimes it is in response to a case that got a lot of attention. I can’t keep up with it.”
A contrasting child welfare vision
Martinez Jones became an associate judge for the 126th District Court Court in 2015, and won her election to the bench in 2020. In her public presentations, the mother of two promotes court hearings that are “equitable and anti-racist” and “intentionally empower, affirm and honor the gender identity and sexual orientation of youth.”
On the bench, she has continued the Family Drug Treatment Court first established in Travis County by Justice Byrne, who served there as presiding judge for 20 years before being elected chief justice of the Texas’ Third District Court of Appeal. The treatment court model relies on multidisciplinary teams and a more frequent set of hearings that ensures parents are provided with substance abuse treatment, counseling and the parenting skills needed to reunify with their children.
Martinez Jones is the board secretary of the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges. She runs a “trauma-informed” courtroom, one that acknowledges court clients may have experienced traumatic life events that can be triggered in court, compounding their stress.
To make kids feel comfortable in court, there are large plastic bins full of stuffed animals. Children’s art is stamped with rainbow-colored handprints, and a T-shirt on a smiling toy bear asks: “Hi, how are you?”
Martinez Jones clearly explains all proceedings, and what court orders mean. The children in court are also offered a measure of control over their experience. They can meet with Judge Martinez Jones in her office, or in the courtroom. Prior to the pandemic, they were offered the option of sitting with one of the courthouse therapy dogs. And when she presides over an adoption, Martinez Jones lets kids bang the gavel.
Austin resident Iris Young first met Martinez Jones when she was fighting for custody of her grandsons. It was a long, emotional battle with Child Protective Services, she said. But she came to view the judge as the only authority involved who seemed to be truly engaged with her case and who showed any real concern about the welfare of the children.
“She’s by the law,” Young said. “But she’s passionate about what she does, as far as families and children. She runs her court accordingly.”
Young was ultimately able to adopt her three grandsons, ages 7, 6 and 4 in 2020. She asked Martinez Jones to preside over the final court hearing.
“Without a doubt, if I was not in her courtroom it probably would have gone a whole different way and I wouldn’t have my grandchildren,” she said.
To be sure, there are people who have appeared before Martinez Jones who don’t share similarly positive feelings. By the very nature of the dockets she handles, Martinez Jones is engaging people in stressful and volatile situations, including the removal of children into foster care and the termination of parental rights. Criticism can come from all sides, the judge said — from parents and relatives who don’t get the outcome they had hoped for to those saying she placed children back home with their families too soon.
But she added that she hopes even when someone is upset with her rulings, they at least feel someone cared enough to listen.
“One of the most important things throughout this process is never forgetting that we are dealing with real people, and real lives, and making sure everyone has the opportunity to be seen and heard as the unique human beings that they are,” she said.
The importance of representation in court
There were close to 16,000 removals of children in Texas in fiscal year 2021, according to state data, a number that is down from almost 20,700 three years prior.
African American children in Texas are nearly twice as likely as white children to be removed from their homes, last year’s figures show. That disparity is more pronounced in Travis County, which includes Austin. Black children comprise about 8% of kids in Travis County, but they make up 22% of those removed from their parents’ homes following abuse or neglect allegations. White children make up 35% of the population but account for only 15% of removals.
Latino children in foster care mostly match their statewide population for Texas as a whole. But in Travis County, again, they are overrepresented in contrast with their numbers among all children. Latino kids in Travis County make up almost half of the child population, and they are more than three times more likely to be taken from home than their white counterparts, state data show.
But there’s another noteworthy trend in the region that includes Travis County, where Judge Martinez Jones presides over CPS cases. Last year, county residents spent less time in foster care than the statewide average length of stay — regardless of whether the outcome was a reunification with parents, adoption or emancipation.
Those who’ve observed Judge Martinez Jones agree that her experience as a Spanish-speaking Black woman helps connect her with the children and families who come into her courtroom — and attend to their needs.
Justice Byrne praised Martinez Jones for consistently finding ways to plug gaps left unfilled by the state, using her courtroom to help children and families lift themselves out of the system.
“Judge Martinez Jones is leading it in unique and even better and more visionary ways now,” she said.
As of Sept. 1, 2021, 50 of 467 Texas district court judges were Black, according to the Texas Judicial Branch. While some Texas counties celebrated substantial increases in Black women elected to the bench in recent years, in Travis County there are currently only three Black women, including Martinez Jones, serving as district court judges. Two of the three are set to retire this year.
Two prominent judges who know her work well, advocates for children and families, and the grandmother who has appeared before Judge Martinez Jones, described her as determined to find solutions to problems both systemic and individual. They said she rarely settles for accepting inequities that appear too embedded to attempt to fix. They also noted her intellect, compassion and optimism.
“Well, she’s brilliant, for one thing,” Judge Lora Livingston, the first Black woman elected to preside over a district court in Travis County, said in an interview. “You want somebody who is compassionate. You want somebody who cares. You want somebody who understands. You want somebody who is able to appreciate the diverse experiences of those that are going to be coming to her courtroom. And she is capable, in a significant way, of doing all of those things.”
Charting a different course
For Martinez Jones, there has always been some conflict between the deep and abiding love of Texas she was raised with, and the reality of persistent and systemic racism. As a young girl, she was one of the only Black children in her La Porte elementary school and, later, she was one of a small number of Black women at the prestigious University of Texas School of Law.
Her mother had come from Jamaica and her father from Mexico when they first met as teenagers, both having fled impoverished lives in their home countries. From a young age, she helped them navigate the public school system — among her earliest experiences problem-solving complex and often entrenched bureaucracies.
She moved to Austin when she was 17 to attend the University of Texas, completing her undergraduate degree in three years. Intent on attending law school, she worked as a receptionist at a law firm so she could interact with lawyers and learn more about the justice system.
A planner and self-described “nerdy overachiever,” Martinez Jones sought out mentors and learning opportunities that would improve her chances to succeed once in law school. As an undergraduate, after noticing that there were few women of color in pre-law fraternities, she and two classmates founded the student organization Minority Women Pursuing Law in 2003. The organization continues to connect members with law schools, mentors and firms.
As a first-year law school student, Martinez Jones had Professor Lino Graglia for her U.S. constitutional law class. Graglia became notorious for saying at a 1997 news conference that Black and Mexican-American students at top universities were “not academically competitive” with white students because they “have a culture that seems not to encourage achievement.” He also served as faculty adviser for a student group opposed to race-based admissions criteria. Graglia was known for using racial slurs in his classroom and urging Austin residents to defy a court-ordered busing plan.
“He talked about how he was there protesting the desegregation,” Martinez Jones recalled.
After graduating from law school and finding few women of color in leadership positions at established law firms, Martinez Jones again created her own path: In 2007, she opened her own practice. At the time, she took cases, such as consumer protection, personal injury, and probate, that helped pay her bills, but she focused as much time as she could on representing children and families in the child welfare courts.
Today, inside the Heman Marion Sweatt Travis County Courthouse, Martinez Jones presides over the historic courtroom where the building’s namesake launched a fight against Jim Crow segregation that would forever change America. Sweatt was a qualified applicant who was denied admission to the University of Texas School of Law in 1946 because he was Black.
With the help of the NAACP and the late attorney-turned Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, Sweatt filed a lawsuit and first argued the case in the courtroom where Martinez Jones now presides. The U.S. Supreme Court ultimately ruled in 1950 that, under the Equal Protection Clause, the law school was required to admit Sweatt as a student. The case paved the way for the Supreme Court’s decision just a few years later in Brown v. Topeka Board of Education, overturning segregation at all levels of public education.
“I am very humbled to be in this position and to be the first Black judge sitting on this bench, given its legacy,” Martinez Jones said. “There’s a lot of gravity with that. I think about my place in that history, and doing what I know they wanted me to do, which is stand on their shoulders.
I just feel a duty and a responsibility to use this opportunity on this historic bench with a legacy for a purpose.”
Taking control of Travis County
Child welfare cases are complex, Martinez Jones said, at times involving not only civil litigation, but state, federal and sometimes immigration law. The Constitutional rights of both parents and children also have to be balanced in determining the outcomes in child welfare cases.
Balancing the rights of children to be free from harm with a parent’s right to parent is difficult, she said. But, when judges take the time to learn and understand a family — including its history and complexities — and can bring in resources to help with challenges related to substances, domestic violence or mental health, the chances for a positive outcome are greatly improved.
Martinez Jones wants such help offered to families well before social workers are considering removing a child from home. She calls the method “mandated supporting,” a riff on the “mandated reporters” who are required by law to report allegations of suspected abuse and neglect.
If there were a separate and distinct method for reporting situations that don’t rise to the level of abuse or neglect — a family struggling with access to food or shelter for instance — the number of hotline calls that result in unwarranted maltreatment investigations could be reduced, she said. It’s a concept currently being looked into by the Child Welfare Race Equity Collaborative she co-founded.
Her foster care prevention plans in Travis County also rely on better-funded, closer partnerships with community based groups including Any Baby Can, Latinitas, the African American Youth Harvest Foundation, Black Mamas ATX, the Girls Empowerment Network and Con Mi MADRE.
To effectively connect families with these groups, she states in her public presentations, the county needs to “normalize help-seeking,” removing its stigma and shame; promote a “sense of duty to help” within neighborhoods and “remove moral judgements about families.”
Ultimately, failing these children and families has far-reaching implications for the larger society.
“Every person in society will be impacted by the way children in the community are treated,” Martinez Jones said. “Children are an endless possibility of potential. If we do not do a good job in the foster care system, in the child welfare system, in the system that is meant to protect and support children and families, everyone is going to feel the impact.”
But making real change has been painstaking, and incremental.
For example: Despite a 2007 standing court order in Travis County to stop housing children without placement in office buildings and other unlicensed facilities, the agency continued to do so. Leaders claimed they could not find alternative housing for the children, a population who often have higher therapeutic needs, and may have been trafficked, or kicked out of homes hostile to LGBTQ youth.
Last fall, Martinez Jones issued a contempt finding and levied a fine against the agency after several local teens being housed in an office building were injured. She requested money from the fine be used to form a task force to address the crisis.
The agency responded that it had “done everything possible” to comply with the order, and said Martinez Jones had overstepped her authority, reported KXAN in Austin. Soon after, the agency lost access to the building and began moving the children outside of Travis County.
Rejecting the idea that safe, licensed placements couldn’t be found, Martinez Jones worked with an organization she had created, the Travis County Child Welfare Re-Imagined pilot, to find a solution. Through court orders, licensing revisions and other agreements, the children were brought back to Travis County and housed in cottages on the campus of Austin’s SAFE Alliance shelter, until permanent placements could be found.
Social worker Jones, of the group Change 1, said the judge’s willingness to use her authority to correct long-standing problems is deeply meaningful, especially to people who have been personally exposed to the child welfare system.
“Being at the table, and valuing my voice and valuing the voice of people with lived experience means so much,” Jones said. “I have seen how the vision was in her head, how it got on paper, and how these people have come together, how they respect her, how we are getting things done in Travis County. That’s inspiring.”
Farrah Mina contributed to this report.