The saga over systemic failures of the Texas foster care system continues with the state Department of Family and Protective Services paying a $150,000 fine levied by U.S. District Judge Janice Jack. Payment comes in the wake of a contentious hearing during which Judge Jack criticized the department for dragging its feet on implementing changes to the state’s foster care system.
Four years ago, Judge Jack ruled that DFPS violated the civil rights of children in its care and ordered the state to make sweeping changes to the system.
While Jack’s criticism of the abhorrent state of the Texas foster care system as operated under DFPS and her frustration with the slow pace of change are justified, continuing to bludgeon the state with fines and threats is counterproductive and risks undoing hard-won reforms.
Due in part to the lawsuit, Gov. Greg Abbott made foster care reform an emergency item and the 85th Legislature got to work on designing a new model that would be more responsive to the needs of children. This model, known as community-based care, was designed to address the failures of the government-run system by localizing foster care services and increasing the role of communities and nonprofit organizations in caring for children.
Three regions of the state are currently operating under community-based care. In these regions, we are already seeing significant improvements, notably in respect to failings sited by Jack’s most recent order.
Jack lambasted the state for not being in compliance with one of her orders requiring every home or facility that cares for foster kids in a setting where they are housed with six or more children (including nonfoster children) to provide 24/7 awake supervision. While the judge is rightly concerned with the safety of foster children, particularly those placed in institutional settings, her broad order is a one-size-fits-all solution that fails to account for the nuanced needs of individual children and limits innovative solutions.
In Community-Based Care Region 3B, which includes Tarrant County, the local lead agency, Our Community Our Kids, is addressing this problem and is successfully reducing the region’s reliance on institutional settings. Within one year, OCOK reported it had reduced shelter use by 55 percent and residential treatment center use by 17 percent. This means more kids, even those with high needs, are being placed in nurturing, family settings. That’s something 24/7 supervision can’t do.
Jack’s order also wrongly associates safety with the number of kids living under the same roof. An unintended consequence of this will be to further limit an already limited pool of available family foster homes. Since Judge Jack’s order is based solely on the number of kids in the home regardless of whether they are foster children or the biological or adopted children of the foster parents, large families who would otherwise be predisposed to opening their homes may decide that the barrier to entry is too high. Available placements for sibling groups may also be further limited, resulting in more foster children being separated from their brothers and sisters.
Ironically, the improvements made by community-based care are at risk of being undermined by Jack’s recent ruling. Rather than continuing down a path of punishing the state for its failures and imposing a patchwork of fixes on the existing system, the judge can best serve Texas foster children by using her influence to promote innovation through the rollout of community-based care to every corner of the state.
Jack has done a great service by shining the spotlight on just how broken Texas’s state-run foster care system was. Sadly, her current efforts to mandate specific fixes for every failure will likely be futile because there are just too many holes in the hull to patch. Texas needs a new ship. Fortunately, that ship is already being built.
The best hope for Texas foster children is for the state to be allowed to continue to implement the reforms the Legislature enacted in 2017, rather than those that could be imposed upon it by the federal government. Jack, Abbott and DFPS leadership must commit to the full implementation of community-based care.