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Court records show thousands of serious incidents at unregulated Texas foster placements

A young teenager with their back to a wall being handcuffed.
kali9/Getty Images/iStockphoto
The most common method of restraining children in schools is through physical means. But schools and school police also sometimes use straps or handcuffs.

Two children squared off to fight each other in a hallway at a Houston hotel and other children gathered to watch. It was 11:36 pm. As punches and slaps reigned down on a state employee, Claudia Riggins, called 911 for help.

One boy fled the fight and came back with a razor. Then he dropped it and came out with a high heel. Another worker, Amy Woodward-Davis, grabbed the heel. The kid then grabbed the fire extinguisher and sprayed it.

“Commotion was heard,” read a report about the serious incident.

Punches and kicks. One of the combatants lay on the ground and was kicked and punched more. One child started recording video on a phone.

Fifteen minutes after the fight began, staff was finally able to stop it, and the beaten youth vomited blood.

One child was taken to the hospital. The other fled the scene before police arrived.

This short and redacted scene was in June 2021. It was just one of more than 2,100 serious incidents that took place across Texas in state offices, hotel rooms and state-leased homes that make up the state’s Child Without Placement crisis (CWOP) from 2021 to 2023.

The Department of Family and Protective Services was barred from placing youth in state offices in September 2021.

Hundreds of pages of serious incident reports involving children in CWOP were published on the federal court records system PACER Tuesday as part of the 12-year old litigation against the state’s child welfare system.

The incident reports date back to early 2021, and they illustrated how ill-prepared the department was and continues to be when directly caring for youth. It also highlighted what impact the lack of placement options for kids has had.

The process of needing a place to keep a foster child transitioning from one placement to another has been common for more than a decade in Texas. But what was intended as a stopgap for a few hours or even a few nights swelled to weeks and months. CWOP exploded in 2021 with as many as 400 youth a night in need of a place to stay. In November 2023, the number was down to 116 unique children.

They showed a wide range of trouble befalling youth — at a rate of about 60 a month, or two a day.

The state's child without placement crisis has been well known and documented for four years. Critics wonder why it hasn't been solved and what it may say about a system that's been in federal court for more than a decade.

The incidents often involved injured staff, injured youth and police response.

In a January hearing, Paul Yetter — attorney for the youth in 13 year litigation against the state’s foster care system — referenced these not yet public documents and said this was not anecdotal, but instead a feature of the state's CWOP strategy.

“It is as systematic as clockwork, and it is incredibly harmful to children. These are children being — just terrible things happening, being abused, being injured or running away and trying to commit suicide,” he said.

State foster care leaders have been reluctant to call the placements unsafe. But attorneys for children in foster care, experts and judges across the state categorically called for them to be dispensed with.

In previous reporting, TPR showed the state had spent more than $250 million on CWOP in three years.

In one serious incident report, a youth was given the wrong medication and taken to the emergency room. In another, a youth calls a caseworker the “n-word,” and an assault took place. The caseworker, who had five years on the job, would leave Child Protective Services (CPS) a few months later.

State documents show Texas paid $260 million over three years to keep kids in hotels and leased homes temporarily. Unregulated placements that advocates say warehouse youth with the most needs in the most dangerous way.

The turnover rate at DFPS for caseworkers has been high, at times as high as 40% in the past three years. Stephanie Muth, the head of DFPS — which is over CPS — estimated in testimony that the turnover rate for caseworkers was about one in four in January. She did not say that CWOP was the sole reason.

“CWOP has been catastrophic for DFPS. DFPS has completely failed the children in foster care,” wrote one caseworker in a survey read into the record in January’s hearing.

Former caseworkers testified to driving hundreds of miles to watch youth in hotel rooms, a task they were not trained for. They said CWOP shifts were often mandatory staffed by everyone, from caseworkers to janitors at statewide intake. The youth in CWOP placements were often the most vulnerable in the system, with high mental health needs, and were often highly aggressive.

“Female workers get assaulted and groped. CWOP kids run away and do drugs. All the while these CWOP kids engage in sex trafficking while on runaway [status]. It's a disgrace. Everyone is leaving, especially tenured workers like me. The one’s left have little to no experience,” said another.

The state has said it is hiring about 30 caseworkers just for CWOP. It has been attempting to bring more placements online to address high needs kids.

Three years ago, a panel of child welfare experts gave the state a series of non-binding recommendations to reduce the need for CWOP.

The status of its progress was unclear as it failed to bring documents related to its progress to the federal court. Leaders were threatened with contempt for failing to produce the documents— a process the federal judge in the case is already weighing for other issues in the case.

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Paul Flahive can be reached at Paul@tpr.org