April 22, 2016 by Robert Franklin, Esq, Member, National Board of Directors, National Parents Organization
The slow motion disaster that is the Texas Department of Families and Protective Services got a nudge from the governor last year. Governor Gregg Abbott sped up the crash. Now, the press has taken to calling the agency “collapsing” (Texas Tribune), “giving off increasingly desperate signals” (Texas Tribune), “inhumane” (Bryan-College Station Eagle) and “broken” (Houston Press), to name just a few. Those of course echo the findings of Federal Judge Janis Jack who’s written that kids entering foster care often come out “more damaged” than when they went in.
The child welfare system of a state the size of Texas is large – larger than many state governments. Texas spends $1.7 billion per year on the agency that employs 12,700 people and maintains about 28,000 kids as permanent wards of the state. Those kids of course make up just a fraction of the children with which the agency deals on daily basis. Children believed to be at risk of harm, those who are at risk of harm, those who’ve been taken temporarily from their homes, etc. are in addition to those 28,000.
In 2015, about 17,000 of Texas’ children were removed from their parents and about 4,000 of them spent at least some time in a psychiatric facility.
And of course, as I’ve said many times before, all those kids have to be seen to by caseworkers whose caseloads far exceed industry standards. When Leiliana Wright was killed in March, it was discovered that her Dallas area caseworker was buried under a load of an astonishing 70 cases, about four times what he should have been expected to handle.
Given those caseloads, it should surprise no one that CPS fails to protect children suffering abuse and neglect, even when caseworkers know or have reason to believe they’re at risk. But when Governor Gregg Abbott took office in January of 2015, he was surprised (Bryan College Station Eagle, 4/6/16).
Gov. Greg Abbott had been in office just six days before facing his first tragedy involving a child under the state’s care. Justice Hull, a two-month-old girl from Dallas, was drowned by the 14-year-old daughter of Hull’s state-approved caretaker on Jan. 26, 2015.
In the days following the infant’s death, Abbott’s aides sent dozens of emails to executives at the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services seeking to understand how Child Protective Services had allowed Hull to live in a home where she would be murdered, and trying to determine how many other children might be at risk.
It was the beginning of an email correspondence, comprising thousands of pages over four and a half months, that documents a governor and his reform-minded staff becoming deeply involved in the operations of the state’s child welfare agency from Abbott’s very first days in office.
It’s always a problem when a person of great power stumbles into a mess about which he knows little, and decides to use his authority to clean it up. Abbott issued an order to the DFPS that made the agency’s already formidable problems much more so.
That’s because Justice Hull was residing with relatives when she was murdered by the 14-year-old girl. She was doing so under a plan misleadingly called Parental Child Safety Placement. It’s a misleading term because children in those plans don’t live with their parents, but with relatives. That’s called ‘kinship care’ and the science on children in alternative living arrangements tells us that, generally speaking, it’s better for kids than foster care. Children placed with relatives usually know both the people they’re living with and the places they’re living. As such, going to live with Nana and Grampa is less traumatic for them than living with strangers.
The problem with PCSPs, as Abbott saw it, is that the families haven’t been screened in the same way foster families are. It’s a valid argument, but PCSPs are usually only short-term living arrangements. They’re a stopgap measure used immediately after a child is taken from the home until something more permanent can be established.
But a child had died while living in a PCSP, so Abbott swung into action that saw literally thousands of emails exchanged between his office and the DFPS. Finally, Commissioner of the Department John Specia wrote to Abbott about PCSPs.
An internal agency review last year found serious safety concerns with just 0.05 percent of parental child safety placements.
“PCSPs are safe,” Specia wrote in a presentation to the governor’s office on May 7. He pointed out that restricting those placements would likely increase the number of child removals, placing higher demand on the state’s foster care system. That would cost an average of $42,000 per child, Specia wrote.
Specia was right. But Abbott, new to the office and determined to appear “pro-active,” put pressure on the agency to sharply curtail the use of PCSPs, despite the fact that the Department figured that just five in 10,000 of those placements was cause for concern.
In response to the pressure from the governor’s office, there was a 56% drop in PCSPs in the first year of Abbott’s term in office (Texas Tribune, 4/8/16). And sure enough, child removals also spiked 37% during the same period. That all happened at a time when there already weren’t nearly enough foster homes for the regular flow of children out of parental care.
The result? More trauma to children taken from their parents and no place to put them. So we’ve seen a massive increase in children simply being warehoused in the office buildings occupied by CPS offices. Worse, the number of kids placed in psychiatric hospitals has also spiked and their stays there have been dramatically prolonged.
Abused children in Texas are being left in psychiatric facilities longer than they were six years ago as the state’s child protective services system grapples with federal court scrutiny and diminishing options, according to data obtained by The Texas Tribune.
Those “diminishing options” are the Parental Child Safety Placements Governor Abbott has so sharply restricted.
But the number of total days foster care children together spend in psychiatric facilities past their initial 8 to 10 days of treatment covered under Medicaid has risen. In June 2009, children taken together spent a total of 10 extra days in the facilities. By August 2015 that number had grown to 768 days.
In other words, CPS has nowhere else to put children at risk, so they shove more and more of them into psychiatric facilities and leave them there. The cost?
[DFPS spokesperson Julie] Moody explained how the foster home squeeze overall can contribute to keeping children in psychiatric hospitals longer, which can cost $650 a day just for that child’s room and board.
So Abbott’s shoot-from-the-hip approach to child welfare reform has not only made the problems far worse, but is costing Texas taxpayers knee-bending amounts of money.
And in Texas, there’s no end in sight.
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