It has been nearly a decade since the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Texas in Corpus Christi began monitoring the foster care system statewide, and federal oversight is not expected to end any time soon, according to child welfare advocates.
Federal monitoring began after Children’s Rights, a nonprofit advocacy organization, sued the State of Texas in 2011.
“We were seeking injunctive relief only that would require the state to build structures and capacity to render child welfare services to these kids safely,” said Samantha Bartosz, deputy litigation director with Children’s Rights.
Although the federal court granted Children’s Rights an injunction to fulfill its goals, progress around implementing the safety structures has been slow.
“There has not been straight-line improvement towards meeting the requirements of the injunction,” Bartosz told The Dallas Express. “There’s been some areas where the state has made progress. There are other areas where it’s been more in question, and we’ve just got to stay the course.”
According to Bartosz, children in Texas foster care who are classified under Permanent Managing Conservatorship (PMC) comprise the group affected by the federal court’s injunction.
“That’s the children who have come into foster care and remained in foster care for at least one year and on the outside 18 months,” she said. “They go from being temporary court conservatorship to permanent. Those children under PMC, during our investigation, we found were really becoming a black hole in the system in many ways and required real attention to get at the kind of harms that these kids were being exposed to.”
Some 2,094 children and youth in the Texas foster care system — 4.6% of children under Texas Department of Family and Protective Services (DFPS) conservatorship — went missing in 2020. Among these children, 136 reported being victimized during the time they were missing, and 68 became victims of sex trafficking, according to DFPS data.
“The judge asked why they can’t find all the kids, and the answer is that DFPS continues to try to get its old system, which is the same system that places children under unconstitutional risk of harm, to do this new thing, which is to assure their safety,” said Brandon Logan, executive director of One Accord for Kids. “So, they’re putting all this money into their old software system to try to get it to tell us where all the kids are, and it’s never going to do that. We need a new data system.”
About 84% of the children reported missing have been found, according to Tiffani Butler, a DFPS media specialist.
“Our caseworkers work with our special investigators and law enforcement to find children who go missing,” Butler told The Dallas Express. “They are immediately reported to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. We follow up on tips received and talk to family and/or friends who may know the child’s location. We search every possible location that we know of or are told of by family, friends, and law enforcement.”
As previously reported in The Dallas Express, Senate Bill (S.B.) 1896, passed in the Texas legislature last May, was expected to potentially end federal monitoring by the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Texas in Corpus Christi. However, the federal oversight continues.
“The agency can be building its array of placements separate and apart from the injunction that we’re overseeing in Corpus Christi federal court,” Bartosz said in an interview. “That’s been an effort that has not been terribly successful to date, but it’s ongoing.”
SB 1896, sponsored by Sen. Lois Kolkhorst (R-Brenham), created an independent office of Community-Based Care (CBC) transition and provided for a legislative oversight committee to ensure full transitioning to CBC.
The independent office is charged with developing a plan for CBC implementation across different regions of the state, evaluating CBC providers, measuring performance, and reporting outcomes.
“There have been efforts to roll out a CBC design, and in certain regions, the state engaged the prime contractor in the region who would then be responsible for getting private providers on board through a series of subcontracts,” Bartosz added.
She continued, “What has happened there is that there has been uneven progress. Some of these primary contractors have come in and, in short, pulled out of the contracts because they feel they can’t manage them within the available funding or whatever other reason they may have. It’s been an uneven start, to say the least. There’s a lot of work to be done.”
According to Logan, CBC has been implemented in four of seventeen regions so far, including Fort Worth, Abilene, the Hill Country, and Lubbock. Four other regions are slated to start in 2023 in Dallas, Midland, Tyler, and Beaumont.
As for when CBC will be implemented in the remaining nine regions, Logan said there is no clear plan for the overall timeline.
“The state is walking this out in fits and starts in a piecemeal sort of way,” he said. “We’ve known that the legislature funded four new regions since September 2021, but there has not been any effort to procure those four regions yet.”
Logan added that Child Protective Services (CPS), the juvenile justice system, and private pay all contract with The Refuge for Domestic Minor Sex Trafficking (DMST) at Bastrop to place children there.
Earlier this month, it was widely reported that the staff at The Refuge had newly abused girls recovering from being sexually trafficked. However, the Texas Department of Public Safety announced on March 16 that its investigation found no evidence of residents at The Refuge being abused or trafficked by staff.
“The Refuge is one of the contractors,” Logan said in an interview. “One of the alleged victims of sexual assault at The Refuge was placed there by one of the current CBC contractors. The problem is that monitoring of facilities for either licensing violations or abuse and neglect allegations doesn’t transfer to private contractors in CBC. The state retains the obligation and responsibility to investigate and maintain safety. The obligation to have facilities be safe never transfers to the contractors.”
When asked for comment, Steven Phenix, communications director with The Refuge DMST, told The Dallas Express, “At the moment, we’re getting ready for Judge [Janis Graham] Jack’s next federal hearing that is slated to begin at 9 a.m. this Wednesday, [March 30], there in Dallas.”