Despite an ongoing crisis that has left hundreds of foster children living in hotel rooms and other unlicensed settings, Texas child welfare officials are not moving with enough urgency to find them safe homes, attorneys for the children say.
“We consider this an emergency situation, and we think the state should consider it as well,” said attorney Marcia Lowry, executive director of the nonprofit A Better Childhood, in response to a new court filing detailing the state’s current plans. “The state has not come up with concrete plans on many of these recommendations to do the work we think that they need to do to develop additional placements, additional funding for placements and additional programs.”
At issue is progress on a sweeping decade-old federal lawsuit alleging that the state’s Department of Family and Protective Services has failed to properly care for the children entrusted to the public agency. In a hearing last month, U.S. District Court Judge Janis Jack described the state’s handling of foster children as incompetent and negligent, and gave officials 30 days to act on the recommendations for improvement detailed by a panel of experts.
In a response to the recommendations filed in court Friday, child welfare officials pledged to complete some of them in the next few months. They include developing “guiding principles” and hiring new staff to focus on the issue of children without a proper placement. But they said many of the more substantive changes would not be possible for more than a year.
This week, attorneys in the class-action lawsuit who represent Texas foster children, said the state’s response lacks the urgency needed to address a dire and dangerous ongoing situation.
“The state has not come up with concrete plans on many of these recommendations to do the work we think that they need to do to develop additional placements, additional funding for placements and additional programs,” Lowry told The Imprint.
The department declined to comment on the concerns that the state response has been lagging.
The number of children sleeping in offices, hotels, churches and slapdash rental homes has decreased since its peak in July, when experts found 416 kids in such settings. But as recently as last month, 221 children spent at least two consecutive nights in an unlicensed placement, according to a department spokesperson.
State officials have committed by the end of this month to form an interagency team to find housing for children in unlicensed settings, headed by a high-ranking department official. By the end of March they have vowed to hire “community liaisons” to identify new placement options, and clinical coordinators to support the children as they transition to their new homes.
In its most recent court filing, the department reported that an external consultant is now on board and holding an initial meeting next month. To improve the quality of residential care for children with high needs, the state reports that in the coming months it will launch a pilot program that will begin to shift group care in the state to a more clinical model, as is required by a new federal law.
Still, Lowry said, these timelines do little to help the children who are languishing between homes — tonight. Reforms to address the other systemic problems are also too lackluster, she added.
For example, one recommendation presented to the court by the expert panel in January was the need to increase the number of therapeutic foster homes. The reaction by the department: A first planning meeting at the end of March. A meeting to develop a broader plan to identify and contract new housing options for difficult-to-place youth won’t happen until June 1.
“A plan to plan is not a plan, it’s going to delay things further,” Lowry said. “These are kids who need services now. These are kids who are in really bad places and they’re suffering tonight.”
Many of the reforms recommended in the federal court case won’t be implemented for a year or more, according to the department’s current outline.
One example of that is addressing the dire need for robust mental health services for children both in and out of foster care. State statistics show that 35% of children without placements entered the system, in part, because of unmet behavioral health challenges. Court-appointed experts proposed several solutions, one being the expansion of a Medicaid-funded mobile crisis program. But in its recent court filing the child welfare department estimated it would take 14 to 20 months to set up.
Officials say family-based supports and services to treat trauma will have to wait until after the state Legislature’s next session, with funding available no sooner than Sept. 1, 2023.
Attorneys representing foster youth and state public policy experts want Texas to take administrative action to make funds available sooner. By next summer the state is expected to be sitting on a $12 billion budget surplus, according to the comptroller’s office.
“Rather than making kids in foster care wait until after the 2023 legislative session for some of these reforms, it will be critical for Governor Abbott and legislative leaders to give the green light to move forward now,” Kate Murphy, senior policy associate for child protection at Texans Care for Children, said in a statement.
Murphy also suggested that the governor and Legislature provide emergency funding to increase payment rates and support for kin caregivers, allowing more children to remain with family members.
Lowry called this development a “crucial point” in the 11-year-long lawsuit aimed at correcting deep flaws within Texas’ foster care system. After years of contentious court hearings, the convening of the expert panel was supposed to foster greater collaboration among the parties.
“It is an opportunity for plaintiffs and the state to work together to solve this problem,” she said, ”and we hope it’s not an opportunity that the state is going to decline.”