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New leader of Texas’ foster care system welcomed in court, but old problems persist

Joe Gratz | https://bit.ly/3wUgDDn
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Judge Janis Jack has for years grilled, cajoled and reprimanded state officials over how its system fails to care for children.

The latest hearing in the federal litigation against the state’s foster care system Friday saw praise and welcoming from the acerbic jurist. While Stephanie Muth received an optimistic welcome, it also included a laundry list of fixes needed within the agency.

Muth, who became commissioner of the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services on Jan 2, went before a federal court for the first time.

“You cannot know how thrilled I am to hear from the monitors…that we finally have — after the departments were split — two commissioners that have a working relationship,” said Jack.

Muth had previously worked at HHSC for many years. But more than a compliment, it and other backhanded criticisms of Muth’s predecessor Jamie Masters, peppered the first few hours of the hearing, without using the former commissioner’s name.

Masters was removed from the position at the end of November. Her time with the agency was filled with scandal and high-turnover.

But along with welcome to Muth came pointed criticism and threats of contempt fines. The judge threatened the state with substantial fines in June over multiple failures to come into compliance, but they went unrealized Friday as, according to Jack, plaintiffs attorneys never filed a motion.

Earlier threats of contempt have resulted in $150,000 in fines for DFPS in 2019.

A similar reprieve may not happen in a hearing discussed for February. Four threats of contempt charges were made by the judge throughout the hearing.

A federal hearing Monday brought new revelations around the issues plaguing Texas' foster care system as well as news that Judge Janice Jack would seek contempt charges.

One was for the state’s continued child placement crisis. Children without placement, or CWOP, are youth who are in the state’s care but have no place to stay. The state houses them in state-leased rental houses staffed by Child Protective Service workers or in hotels.

A report out this week from federal court monitors said the number of CWOP kids without a licensed place to stay had dropped 25% from 80 per night in 2021 to to 60 per night last year.

This was spurred by a number of foster placements closing after failing to come into compliance with standards. The state lost about 1500 beds over two fiscal years, according to a DFPS official. These were beds for high-needs kids, often older youth, who had already had multiple placements previously.

The number of CWOP kids swelled to over 400 kids in June 2021.

“I don’t know why we are still here,” said Jack.

A report from court monitors in 2021 found several safety issues from the ability to maintain youth, to accurate and timely distribution of children's medications, as well as the areas some of unlicensed homes were located.

“Not one of those kids is safe,” jack said. “As witnessed by two of them last year being shot to death, murdered.”

Jack pointed to Oklahoma, a state that also closed down many unsafe placements. According to Jack and court monitors, it did not experience the same crisis of placements.

She and one court monitor pushed the state as a template for Texas, especially on kinship placements — or placements with family. Oklahoma, they said, had pushed for parity in state payments to kinship placements and it had reduced their placement problems, and increased child stability.

The judge also threatened contempt fines for the lack of youth knowledge about their rights. About half of surveyed kids in permanent managed conservancy knew about the foster care bill of rights, less than half knew about the ombudsman, the foster care bill of rights, or the abuse and neglect hotline. Less than 1 in 4 knew about all three.

But it wasn’t all bad news for the beleaguered system.

The fifth monitors’ report saw high marks for CPS worker training and caseloads. Graduated caseloads were 99% compliant with new hires.

“Excellent work,” said Jack. “While you’re being slapped around for some [things], I want to give you credit where it’s due.”

But those caseloads don’t include the use of CPS workers to staff CWOP placements.

A spokesperson for plaintiffs lawyers said they were happy about the state’s progress on caseloads, the accuracy of investigations into abuse and neglect, as well as the drop in CWOP youth.

Paul Flahive can be reached at Paul@tpr.org